Cocaine barons are using a popular mobile phone app to flood Britain with industrial quantities of the deadly drug.
The chilling racket is exposed today just weeks after a multi-million pound police bust of a rival service selling huge shipments through encrypted smartphone messages.
Now we can reveal Telegram – a free download similar to WhatsApp and popular with teenagers – has been infiltrated by a group of drug-runners called Cocaine Central, flogging “bricks” of the drug to pushers at £1,600 an ounce.
They hide their evil trade behind the app’s “end-to-end encryption”.
The commonly used feature guarantees no one other than the people chatting to each other can read the messages, and is meant to make innocent users feel secure.
But Telegram, founded by a Russian tech billionaire, has also become a perfect secret communication tool for criminals and even jihadi extremists.
In messages obtained by the Sunday Mirror, one chat group called Cocaine Central has set up an auction business, including price lists and pictures of the bricks made of “pure flake”.
One shipment is marked 777 – used around the globe as a mark of top- quality cocaine. Its seller uses the handle “UKPablo” – a reference to infamous Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar killed in 1993 in the South American country which is Europe’s main cocaine supplier.
Sellers boast of having the “best raw flake on Telegram”.
Street dealers who buy them, usually using online currency Bitcoin, cut the drug with dangerous bulking agents like laundry detergent, selling it at £50 per gram in a UK coke market estimated to be worth up to £11.8billion a year.
Psychoactive drugs like ‘Forbidden Fruit’ and ‘Liberty Haze’ marijuana are also on sale on Telegram.
Last month Britain’s National Crime Agency took part in a swoop on British drugs gangs after encrypted Netherlands-based message system EncroChat – solely used by criminals – was cracked by Dutch investigators.
More than 700 arrests were made in Operation Venetic as police from nearly all UK forces seized £54million in cash and two tonnes of drugs. The operation was part of a two-month series of raids across Europe.
It caused panic on Telegram’s secret cocaine dens. In one message we have seen, a coke kingpin warns prices will soar.
He says: “Coke is drying up at the moment and some vendors have posted in groups they’re out of stock. The Encro server got hacked and some big players have been nicked. With Encro phones now out of use, importers in the UK don’t feel safe communicating with friends abroad. So nothing is coming in.”
But the war on the secret messaging of cocaine gangs is far from over. Former drugs detective sergeant Neil Woods, now of Law Enforcement Action Partnership UK, said: “The police say they have ‘disrupted’ the market – but disruption is not reduction. In fact the police disruption creates opportunities for new players. It creates localised competition and market growth.”
A drugs world insider said of Telegram: “A lot of people are turning to encrypted apps to cover their backs. They’re buying from South America then shifting it over here with clever marketing on platforms like Telegram. It’s done anonymously so the chances of getting nicked are much slimmer.
“The EncroChat bust put a spanner in the works. A lot of big players taken out are key figures in the chain between UK dealers and Colombian cartels. They’re based in places like Amsterdam and Spain and they broker multi-million pound deals.
“But their arrests mean there’s no one to deal direct with the Colombians and dealers in the UK are reluctant to do business direct. So there’s a drought and prices have shot up. Where you’d be paying £45,000 for a kilogram, you’re now looking at £50,000 or more.”
Earlier this year the National Crime Agency called the UK the “cocaine capital of Europe”, with Brits consuming 117 tonnes in 2019.
The agency said the UK’s coke market is worth up to £11.8billion a year. London and Bristol are in the top five cocaine cities in Europe. And national use has almost doubled over the past five years, according to the Home Office.
A Home Office spokesman said: “Through the takedown of EncroChat and the NCA’s work on Operation Venetic, we have shown we will pursue criminals wherever they hide online.”
A Telegram spokesman said: “We urge users to report illegal activity using the in-app reporting feature or with an email to [email protected]”
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