The text messages that led to the arrests of hundreds of alleged underground criminals and drug traffickers during a three-year police sting have been revealed.
Australian, US and European law officials revealed on Tuesday that they had been reading the communications of organised crime gangs using an ‘encrypted’ app created by police.
ANOM, the secure-messaging service built by the FBI and other law enforcement agencies, launched in October 2019 and solidified its following after authorities took down another rival.
Murder plots, weapon purchases and mass drug trafficking were openly discussed on the online platform but secretly overseen by the US FBI, police say.
Screenshots of messages released by the FBI show alleged criminals talking about using cargo ships to move drugs and how much it would cost.
Others include images of shipments of narcotics and concealment methods.
When ANOM was taken down on Tuesday, authorities had collected more than 27 million messages from about 12,000 devices in 45 languages
Unbeknown to criminals, authorities were copied on every message sent on the FBI devices, much like blind recipients of an email.
App idea created ‘over a few beers’
AFP Commissioner Reece Kershaw said on Tuesday ANOM was hatched over a few beers with FBI agents overseas in 2018, the ABC reported.
The seeds of the sting were sown when law enforcement agencies took down a company called Phantom Secure that provided customised end-to-end encrypted devices to criminals, according to court papers.
It was later unwittingly distributed to gangs in more than 100 countries through undercover agents.
The devices grew in popularity among criminals after high-profile figures – dubbed "criminal influencers" – vouched for them.
Hundreds of alleged criminals arrested
The global operation has prompted mass arrests across 18 countries and the Australian Federal Police intends to extradite and charge numerous residents overseas.
In Australia, more than 220 alleged organised crime figures have been arrested through the sting since 2018.
Offenders are linked to the Australian-based Italian mafia, outlaw motorcycle gangs, Asian crime syndicates and Albanian organised crime figures.
The communications found on the platform revealed 21 murder plots, gun distribution activity and mass drug trafficking, Australian Federal Police say.
The AFP also said on Tuesday it had seized 3.7 tonnes of drugs, more than 100 weapons and almost $45 million in cash as part of the operation since 2018.
In the US, more than 800 suspects have been arrested and more than 32 tons of drugs seized, including cocaine, cannabis, amphetamines and methamphetamines.
Police also seized 250 guns, 55 luxury cars and more than $148 million in cash and cryptocurrencies.
An indictment unsealed Tuesday in San Diego named 17 foreign distributors charged with racketeering conspiracy.
With AP and AAP
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