Kingpins are among hundreds of previously “untouchable” gangsters who have been snared after a global encrypted phone network was smashed.
The most “significant” investigation into organised crime ever seen in the UK has seen 746 suspects held – some described as “iconic” who have escaped justice for years.
Officers have seized £54million in illegal cash along with two tonnes of drugs and 77 firearms including hand grenade and machine guns.
Hundreds of people who were being targeted by the gangs for violent attack, including murder, have been made safe because of the breakthrough.
The National Crime Agency operation started in 2016 but it was only two months ago that French and Dutch law enforcement officers cracked the phone system, called Encrochat.
The data harvested was shared via Europol.
Unbeknown to users the NCA and police forces have been monitoring their “every move” since then in an operation, codenamed Venetic.
The probe, which has involved every police force in the country, has punched “huge holes” in organised crime, the NCA said.
NCA Director of Investigations Nikki Holland, said: “The infiltration of this command and control communication platform for the UK’s criminal marketplace is like having an inside person in every top organised crime group in the country.
“This is the broadest and deepest ever UK operation into serious organised crime.
“Together we’ve protected the public by arresting middle-tier criminals and the kingpins, the so-called iconic untouchables who have evaded law enforcement for years, and now we have the evidence to prosecute them.”
Criminals paid £1,500 for a six month contract which gave them a handset and access to the network which ran off a wifi signal.
If one should fall into the hands of police, the gang can simply send a “kill code text” which destroys anything stored on the device.
There were 60,000 users worldwide and around 10,000 users in the UK – the sole use was for coordinating and planning the distribution of illicit commodities, money laundering and plotting to kill rival criminals.
Officers accessed a treasure trove of evidence as top level criminals could be monitored speaking freely about their operations in the belief the network was impenetrable.
The NCA said: “Operation Venetic is the biggest and most significant operation of its kind in the UK.”
National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for serious organised crime, Chief Constable Steve Jupp, said:
“By dismantling these groups, we have saved countless lives and protected communities across the UK.
“Every UK police force has worked together to carry out these warrants, and I’m extremely proud of their hard work and determination which doesn’t stop here.”
Home Secretary Priti Patel said: “This operation demonstrates that criminals will not get away with using encrypted devices to plot vile crimes under the radar.
“The NCA’s relentless targeting of these gangs has helped to keep us all safe. I congratulate them and law enforcement partners on this significant achievement.
“I will continue working closely with the NCA and others to tackle the use of such devices – giving them the resources, powers and tools they need to keep our country safe.”
Last month the Sunday Mirror revealed how a British drug lord known as The Voice is the suspected mastermind behind a secret phone network used to flood Britain with cocaine.
Robert Dawes, 48, is suspected of being the boss of another encrypted global communication system, according to a report by the NCA.
Thought to be worth £50million or more, Dawes is said to run the network despite languishing behind bars in France for a huge trafficking operation.
The handsets are also used by the Mafia and cartels made infamous by caged Mexican crime boss Joaquin Guzman, nicknamed El Chapo.