MAN HELD ON DRUGS RAP
Gangs use £3.5k handsets in crime network
An PSNI/RUC investigation into organised crime has exposed a Europe-wide criminal network.
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Cops here were the first to put people before the courts based on a breach of a secure mobile phone network called EncroChat. The arrests were part of a Europe-wide operation aimed at organised crime gangs – the largest of its kind ever carried out. Police services across the UK have seized weapons and huge amounts of drugs and cash in what is being seen as one of the most significant and successful operations aimed at taking down criminal crime lords. At the centre of it is EncroChat, an encrypted mobile phone network shared by criminal bosses across the continent. The system is WiFi-based and does not rely on a mobile network, users can only communicate by text or pictures, and cannot make a voice call. According to security sources the system is set up entirety for the benefit of criminal gangs – some of whom operate in the North of Ireland.
Handsets can cost up to £3,500 a piece and joining the network is by invitation only. Cracking the code has exposed a vast network of criminal enterprises and a higher level of co-operation between organised crime gangs than previously believed. Operation Venetic in the UK has been overseen by the National Crime Agency who have been working in partnership with police forces across Europe including the Gardaí. To date six people in the North of Ireland are facing charges as a result of cops breaching EncroChat. This week a dissident republican appeared in court as a result of Venetic. Prosecuting lawyer Robin Steer told Craigavon Magistrates Court last week that having accessed messages and images in an encrypted phone, police believe that Bryan McManus is involved in the “transport and shipment of large quantities of drugs and cash,” adding that “we say he is connected to a criminal network”.
McManus appeared at court via videolink from police custody and confirmed that he understood the 12 charges against him. The 642-year-old, from Aileen Terrace in Newry, was charged with nine drugs offences including the importation of cocaine and cannabis. The Co Armagh engineer, who has previous convictions for possessing handguns and ammunition and supplying funds or property for a terrorist organisation, was also charged with possessing criminal property and conspiring to convert and conceal criminal property. Intercepted messages referred to amounts of money up to £300,000 while others referred to “cocaine testing kits and a metal press used to make blocks of cocaine”.
Turning to McManus’s previous record, the court heard that he was jailed for six and a half years in 2013 for firearms and terrorist offences and is the subject of a “terrorism notification order for 15 years”. Six mobile phones which had been seized “are still to be assessed. He conceded that another man arrested as part of the same operation has been freed on bail but Mr Steer highlighted how that defendant, Victor Notorantonio, has numerous health difficulties. McManus was remanded into custody until July 31st 2020. Security sources have told us there is ‘minimal’ involvement of paramilitary gangs, which highlights the increasing level of international organised crime in the North of Ireland.
“While the paramilitaries remain a significant criminal enterprise, and they are getting more sophisticated, it is the prevalence of international crime gangs that is most significant,” a security source told us. It is understood the NCA is frustrated that details of Venetic have emerged before the operation is complete. Last week French and Dutch authorities presented the results of a joint investigation to dismantle EncroChat. Millions of messages exchanged between criminals to plan serious crimes were analysed. A large number of suspects have also been arrested in a number of countries across Europe including the UK, Sweden and Norway. Many of these investigations were connected with international drug trafficking and violent criminal activities. The interception of EncroChat messages came to an end on June 13th 2020 when the company realised it had been compromised.
With many thanks to the: Sunday World and Richard Sullivan for the EXCLUSIVE original story
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