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17 held as police smash drug-smuggling gangs

Seventeen people were arrested today in a mass operation which saw police smash two major organised crime gangs believed to be involved in drug smuggling.

Officers led by Kent Police's Serious and Organised Crime Unit swooped on the gangs' suspected ringleaders in a series of dawn raids at properties across Kent, south London and Teesside.

The raids follow a two-and-a-half-year investigation into members of crime gangs based in north Kent and Billingham in Teesside, who are believed to have smuggled drugs into the UK from Spain and other European countries via France.

Some of the arrests were also in relation to money laundering and mortgage fraud, police said.

A total of 270 police officers were involved in the raids at 6.30am today.

As the men and women were arrested in their homes, officers moved in to search for evidence.

Those arrested were being questioned at police stations in north Kent and Middlesbrough.

Police said charges were expected to be laid over the next few days, while further arrests and searches in both Kent and south London will follow.

Detective Inspector Thomas Richards of Kent Police's Serious and Organised Crime Unit said: "This is a very complex operation involving multiple law enforcement agencies and what we believe is a web of sophisticated criminal activity across the UK, Spain, France and other European countries.

"The large number of people involved, multiple locations, seriousness of offences and related investigations meant the operation had to be meticulously planned and executed.

"Every arrest had to happen at the same time to ensure no one was tipped off and the quality and integrity of evidence seized was preserved.

"By working closely and collaboratively together, Kent Police and its law enforcement colleagues around the country and in Europe hope to have dismantled two very significant organised crime gangs.

"This will undoubtedly enhance people's safety and quality of life. It also sends a strong message to criminals that we will bring them to justice regardless of who they are, where they are and how sophisticated they are."

The multi-agency operation was led by Kent Police's Serious and Organised Crime Unit, in co-operation with Cleveland Police and the Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca).

The operation is believed to be the largest and most complex for Kent Police in the past five years.

It involved ninety Kent Police officers arresting eight people across three police forces.

Cleveland Police arrested nine people in Teesside. One of the eight arrested by Kent Police in south London is currently being questioned by Soca.

During a similar operation last year, 14 people were arrested with 10 of them being convicted for drugs-related charges.

Around 3,000 kg of cannabis, worth £3m was seized, while 10kg of cocaine worth more than £650,000 was also confiscated and officers found 10 firearms.

Assets amounting to £177,750 have been confiscated under the Proceeds of Crime Act so far, including £118,000 in cash.

A further £128,000 has been confiscated and is currently going through the forfeiture process.