MONTREAL - Police in Quebec say intercepted BlackBerry communications were used 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" that led to 33 arrests on Thursday.
Officials from the RCMP and Montreal Police said it was the first time the investigative technique had been used on such a large scale in a criminal investigation.
"This is the most important interception of this kind performed as part of a major investigation in North America," RCMP Supt. Michel Arcand told a news conference.
"One million messages were intercepted between 2010 and 2012 (and) the investigation also included a complex analysis process."
The RCMP said it would not divulge whether the BlackBerry company aided in their investigation and the firm's media representatives said they were unable speak about "an ongoing police investigation."
Arcand said those intercepts make up the bulk of the evidence used to make the arrests.
PIN messaging allows BlackBerry users to send messages directly between devices over wireless networks, bypassing email servers.
The arrests were aimed at dismantling two cells which police said took over after Operation Colisee in late 2006, an operation aimed at their predecessors, the Rizzuto clan. Many of the top Rizzuto lieutenants were arrested during that sweep.
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.
"We were dealing with very dangerous and well-organized crime groups, willing to do anything to achieve their goal and that has the means of their ambitions," said Arcand, who runs the organized crime unit for the Mounties in Quebec.
He said Operation Clemenza established a link between the two networks and a series of violent crimes that were committed in Montreal between October 2010 and February 2012.
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.
Mafia expert Antonio Nicaso says the De Vito group, now apparently led by Giuseppe Fetta and Alessandro Sucapace and the other group headed by Bastone brothers, Antonio and Roberto, tried to capitalize on the vacuum created after by turmoil in the Rizzuto operation.
All four men were among those arrested on Thursday.
"They were extremely violent," Nicaso said, describing the two cells as "the next generation of organized crime," who were very aggressive and very sophisticated, relying on modern technology much more than their predecessors.
But their ultimate goal was the same.
"Their goal was to control the territory, to extort money from restaurant owners and to sell narcotics, but they were using an extremely violent strategy," Nicaso said.
Nicaso also said it was "very likely" there would be another turf war after the latest arrests, as new groups move in to fill the void.
The organized crime expert also warned there could be trouble when people arrested under Operation Colisee are eventually freed.
Thursday's arrests took place in Montreal, Quebec City, Laval and Gatineau. Police said one suspect remained on the lam.
Some 200 officers took 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 and police said they were to appear on Thursday.
Police also seized more than a dozen high-powered weapons that included several submachine guns, shotguns and semi-automatic pistols.
Montreal police say they discovered the weapons and explosives during a search of a warehouse just east of the city in 2011 while acting on an anonymous tip.
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