Belgian police hit organized crime with hundreds of raids

FILE - In this Monday, March 23, 2020 file photo, shipping containers are offloaded in the Port of Antwerp, Belgium. Belgium's federal prosecutor's office says a police operation of an unprecedented scale targeting organized crime is taking place across Belgium on Tuesday, March 9, 2021. With thousands of containers reaching Antwerp every day, the Belgian port city is one of Europe's main ports of entry to Europe for cocaine. Trafficking in the city has led to a surge of violence recently, with gun battles and grenade attacks frequently taking place. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo, File) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

BRUSSELS – Belgian police made 48 arrests Tuesday during an operation of unprecedented scale targeting organized crime, after investigators cracked an encrypted communications network popular with criminals, prosecutors said.

About 200 searches mobilizing more than 1,500 police officers including special units were carried out simultaneously throughout the country of 11.5 million people, the federal prosecutors' office said. Police seized 1.2 million euros ($1.4 million) in cash, alongside firearms, jewelry, diamonds, police uniforms and luxury cars.

Meanwhile, Dutch police and prosecutors said in a statement that they arrested 30 suspects Tuesday throughout the country and searched 75 homes and offices.

Belgian prosecutors said investigators cracked the encrypted messaging service Sky ECC and intercepted a billion messages during their two-year investigation that also helped seize more than 17 tons of cocaine.

According to the investigation, there are about 171,000 phones equipped with the Sky ECC service across the world.

Searches started at around 5 a.m. and mainly took place in the region of Antwerp. There were no major incidents, police said, adding that the operation dismantled several international organizations specialized in drug trafficking.

With thousands of shipping containers reaching Antwerp every day, the Belgian port city is one of Europe’s main entry ports for cocaine. Trafficking in the city has led to a surge of violence recently, with gun battles and grenade attacks taking place.

Last year, authorities in Belgium and three other countries dismantled a drug trafficking network that shipped hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of cocaine into Western Europe. The investigation, which started when a container with 2.8 tons of cocaine was found in Antwerp, uncovered an international network with connections in at least four European countries and South America.