MONTREAL — Police in Quebec say they used intercepted BlackBerry communications to take down two alleged organized crime groups operating in the province.
The RCMP said Thursday more than one million private PIN to PIN messages were intercepted and analyzed as evidence as part of an operation dubbed “Clemenza.”
Officials from the RCMP and Montreal Police said it is the first time this investigative technique has been used on such a large scale in a North American criminal investigation.
RCMP Supt. Michel Arcand told a news conference the intercepts make up the bulk of the evidence used to make arrests on Thursday.
The arrests are aimed at dismantling two cells which police say took over after Operation Colisee seven years ago, an operation aimed at their predecessors.
Police described the cells as linked to Italian-based organized crime in Montreal.
One clan was led by now-deceased mob boss Giuseppe De Vito while the other had an association with a group known as the Bastone brothers, police said.
“These two networks operated with the goal of trafficking in drugs, doing business in their respective territories in Montreal,” said Arcand, who runs the organized crime unit for the Mounties in Quebec.
De Vito died at the Donnacona federal penitentiary last July while serving a 15-year sentence for drug trafficking. A coroner’s investigation determined he died of cyanide poisoning. But his clan continued to operate, police said.
Their investigation began in October 2010. Using the Blackberry investigation technique, investigators said they were able to identify people related to a series of violent crimes between 2010 and 2012.
PIN messaging allows BlackBerry users to send messages directly between devices over wireless networks, bypassing email servers.
Police said they’ve arrested 31 people and are carrying out arrests and seizures in Montreal, Quebec City, Laval and Gatineau.
Three people remain on the lam.
Police had originally said they were looking for 32 people, but have since added two more names to their list.
Some 200 officers are taking part in the operation under the guidance of the RCMP’s Quebec detachment.
The accused face different charges that include gangsterism, conspiracy, drug importation, trafficking, possession, kidnapping, forcible confinement, possession of weapons and explosives, arson, extortion and assault.
In total, police say more than 80 charges were filed in court.
Court appearances are expected later Thursday.