The probe homed in on organised crime and its involvement in drug trafficking. Yesterday’s operation that involved 1,600 officers was the result of years of investigation. The breakthrough came when police gained access to secured telephones marketed by the Sky ECC company that had allowed suspects to communicate in secret until then. Police gained access to a million encrypted messages, half of which were read. Police were able to read the criminals’ messages for two years as a result.
The operation was the biggest centring on drug dealing in Belgium. The criminals also co-operated with gangs abroad. Federal prosecutors announced 17 tons of cocaine were seized yesterday as well as 1.2 million euros in cash, 15 illegal weapons, 8 luxury cars, 3 cashpoints and even police uniforms.
Police raided the premises of three lawyers active in Antwerp and who in the past have defended drug suspects.
Crime journalist Joris van der Aa of the daily Gazet van Antwerpen told VRT he had not heard any police officers had been detained, but that a number of officers were believed to be using the Sky ECC telephones. He won’t rule out arrests in coming days.
“They had so much confidence in that system that they no longer saw the need to communicate carefully”.
Despite the years of police work that had gone before Eric Snoeck, director-general of Belgium’s judicial police, told reporters “The work starts now”.
Yves Driesen of Antwerp judicial police spoke of a mile pole in the history of Belgian investigations that had provided insight into a hallucinating world involving a parallel criminal economy. In Antwerp we see top targets that manage several cocaine transports at the same time involving tons of cocaine, weekly money dops with millions of euros, physical retaliation jobs and corruption in all layers of society.”
Justice minister Van Quickenborne (Flemish liberal) said: “It’s clear tentacles reach everywhere, in the private and public sectors. This operation illustrates the fact that organised crime has worked its way into the legal superstructure and that is scary.”
“Wednesday’s operation is a first step. Antwerp has been terrorised by violence and grenades in recent years. Now we have been able to look into the heart of the system and expose the entire network.
The two lawyers who have now been arrested are said to have been in possession of encrypted Sky ECC phones with which the crime suspects are known to have communicated. One lawyer had been working for the celebrated Antwerp lawyer Pol Vandemeulebroucke for some time now. The second lawyer, arrested on Wednesday, is an intern working in the same office. The lawyers regularly defend drug suspects in court in Antwerp.
Last year Vandemeulebroucke received an 18-month sentence following a conviction on charges of membership of a criminal gang. The court ruled that his relationship with several members of a drugs gang went further than it should. The lawyer’s home was not raided yesterday. He says he know nothing about the investigation.