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How the FBI and police used the Anom app to make 35 arrests in NZ and target hundreds more worldwide. Video / AFP
Police last night seized an Uzi submachine gun, six revolvers, a Glock pistol, methamphetamine and Head Hunters patched clothing from a South Auckland storage locker as part of an ongoing sting into organised crime.
More than $5 million in assets and cash have been restrained this week as part of police Operations Seltos, Van and Equinox after searches of various sites including the Waikato Comancheros bikie gang headquarters.
The operations are linked to global law enforcement sting Operation Trojan Shield, which tricked organised criminal networks into using encrypted communication devices that were monitored by the FBI.
As part of Operation Seltos, police last night executed a warrant at a Manukau storage locker seizing six revolvers, a Glock pistol, an Uzi submachine gun and ammunition.
A 27-year-old man was arrested and charged with unlawfully possessing the firearms, National Organised Crime Group director Detective Superintendent Greg Williams said.
He appeared in the Manukau District Court today. Further charges in relation to the seized property are likely, police said.
The firearms were found along with about half a kilogram of methamphetamine and yet-to-be-identified tablets.
These items were found alongside a Head Hunter motorcycle gang patch and gang clothing.
Since June 7, when Operation Spyglass termination took place, police have executed dozens of search warrants resulting in the arrest of 36 people charged with a wide range of serious drug, firearms and money-laundering offences.
Four motorcycles were also restrained from the Waikato Comancheros headquarters.
As of today, more than $5m in assets and cash has been restrained by police through the raids.
This figure is updated from the initial $3.7m calculated on Tuesday.
“Police will continue to target organised criminal groups and those who are in possession of unlawful firearms. We want to ensure our communities are resilient and feel safe,” Williams said.
“As the operation is ongoing, police are not ruling out further arrests, restraints or charges. Every gun like these that police take out of the hands of gangs makes our communities safer.”
Global police “sting of the century” rolls on
The latest police seizures in New Zealand this week follow a major international operation targeting global organised crime which was announced on June 9 by the FBI and Europol.
The US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) said that along with the Australian Federal Police (AFP) authorities had “turned the tables” on criminals and criminal organisations after fooling them to use a covert encrypted app.
Across 16 countries, including New Zealand, more than 800 suspects have been nabbed, eight tonnes of cocaine seized and more than $51m recovered, officials confirmed.
Europol, including members of the Dutch National Police (Politie) and the Swedish Police
Authority (Polisen), bragged they had carried out “one of the largest and most sophisticated law enforcement operations to date in the fight against encrypted criminal activities”.
They warned that “serious criminals wrongly believe that they can operate anonymously and out of sight of the police and that they cannot be caught”.
Operation Ironside was formed three years ago as a collaboration between the AFP and the FBI to bring down underworld figures.
Austria, Canada, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Lithuania, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Britain and the United States joined Australia.
On Monday, more than 300 New Zealand police staff executed 37 search warrants across the North Island. At least 35 people appeared yesterday in Auckland and Hamilton district courts facing nearly 1000 drug-dealing and money-laundering charges.
More are due to appear today.
Senior members of the Comancheros in Waikato, Waikato Mongrel Mob and the Head Hunters were among those arrested.
The raids seized 566g of methamphetamine, large bags of cannabis, many kilograms of iodine, four firearms, 14 vehicles, including two boats, mobile phones and more than $1m in cash.
Nearly 9kg of meth had also been seized at the border during the course of investigations linked to the joint operation.
Calvin Shivers, assistant director of the FBI’s Criminal Investigation Division, said the sting, dubbed Operation Trojan Shield by the FBI and Europol, involved more than 9000 police officers across 16 countries.
“Criminals and criminal organisations often use encrypted platforms to shield their illicit activity from law enforcement,” Shivers said.
“These platforms help criminals facilitate and co-ordinate drug trafficking, violent assaults, murders, public corruption, money laundering and many other crimes that are committed throughout the world.”
More than 300 NZ staff – including members of the national organised crime unit, armed offenders squad, special tactics group, asset recovery, high-tech crime and Auckland, Waikato, Bay of Plenty, Central and Wellington District staff – executed 37 warrants on Monday.
More than 900 charges have been laid. More will be arrested, said Detective Superintendent Greg Williams of the National Organised Crime Group.
One of the police operations linked to Trojan Shield – dubbed Operation Van – had specifically targeted the transnational organised crime group linked to the Comancheros.
“This is a stunning piece of work,” Williams said.
“It’s a great day for New Zealand.
“We believe the termination of these operations will have a significant impact on New Zealand’s organised crime scene.”
The Trojan Shield raids also revealed senior members of the Comancheros gang purchased a catamaran and allegedly planned to rendezvous at sea with a “mothership” bringing large shipments of illicit drugs into New Zealand.
Details of the failed drug trafficking plan emerged following the termination of Trojan Shield – described as the “sting of the century” and a huge blow to New Zealand’s criminal fraternity.
It involved three major organised crime investigations here targeting the importation, sale and supply of class-A drugs, as well as money-laundering activities.
The incredible scheme – which is said to have been cooked up by an Australian Federal Police officer over beers with his mates from the FBI – has also resulted in hundreds of arrests overseas and uncovered 21 murder plots.
So how did they do it?
Fronting media in Auckland, Williams said the FBI had recently dismantled several encrypted platforms which criminals used to communicate, including Canadian-based Phantom Secure in 2018 and Sky Global earlier this year.
Operation Trojan Shield saw the FBI create a closed encrypted company, called Anom, to fill this void, allowing investigators to eavesdrop on criminal communications about drug trafficking and money laundering activities across the globe.
For more than 18 months, Anom’s criminal users unknowingly communicated on the system operated by FBI agents.
“The users believed their Anom devices were protected from law enforcement by the shield of impenetrable encryption.”
New Zealand police began working with the FBI on the operation in January 2020 to monitor the communications of platform users here in New Zealand.
Globally, the operation involved at least 300 criminal networks, more than 45 languages, and at least 27 million encrypted messages.
New Zealand investigators monitored thousands of messages made on 57 encrypted criminal devices.
Information between the agencies led to the commencement of two local operations targeting drug and money-laundering offences.
One of the operations – dubbed Operation Van – specifically targeted the transnational organised crime group linked to the Comancheros.
Williams said the group had planned to import “huge quantities” of meth and cocaine into New Zealand on a mothership, which would be met by smaller craft at sea and the drugs ferried back to shore for distribution.
“This shipment never made it to New Zealand.”
The Comancheros purchased a catamaran to carry out the offshore marine rendezvous.
But intelligence information gleaned from the police operation revealed the plan to investigators and police swooped.
The catamaran was seized in Tauranga, where it remains in police custody.
Members of the Comancheros linked to the alleged conspiracy are among those arrested this week.
Another operation spawned out of Trojan Shield was Operation Equinox, which targeted members of Waikato Comancheros and Waikato Mongrel Mob Kingdom.
The gang members are alleged to have worked with offshore criminal entities to import large quantities of methamphetamine and MDMA which was distributed across New Zealand.
In the past three years, New Zealand police had identified up to 20 organised crime groups committing offences across international borders, Williams said.