JERUSALEM – Israeli police said Tuesday, March 12, that undercover officers had broken up a drug-dealing network that used a popular messaging app and had connections in the United States, Ukraine and Germany.
"After several months of covert investigation, 42 suspects were this morning detained in Israel and abroad for questioning under caution on suspicion of trafficking various types of drugs," a police statement said.
It said the transactions amounted to "hundreds of millions" of Israeli shekels (tens of millions of dollars/euros).
The suspects, police added, traded through the encrypted messaging app Telegram.
Police designated the ring "Crime Organization 420" and published its organisational chart, with one person at its head and a hierarchy of executives for finance, infrastructure, security and development, among others.
Chief Superintendent Avi Maiberg, head of the police cyber-crime unit which led the investigation, said the ring was headed by Amos Dov Silver, founder of the Israeli online drug marketplace Telegrass.
Maiberg said in an interview with Israeli public radio that Silver was arrested in Ukraine early on Tuesday.
He said that police had been monitoring Telegrass activity for the past year and noted it was growing rapidly.
"We saw suddenly the number of dealers jump from hundreds to thousands and in almost no time from 80,000 users to about 200,000," he said.
Police did not reveal any other suspects' names.
Maiberg said that the suspects dealt not only in marijuana but also ecstasy, LSD, cocaine and other dangerous substances.
The Telegrass website carried a message in Hebrew on Tuesday describing it as a "black day".
"Hope you never know how much it hurts to get up in the morning to find out that your friends have been arrested," it said.
"That their homes were turned upside down, that they were treated worse than animals, that their little children were frightened in the middle of the night with dogs and violent shouts."
Police said in their statement that "wages for staff and managers of the organisation were transferred in cash, in bitcoins, or drugs, while concealing the source of the funds."
Israeli police worked with Ukrainian, US and German law enforcement, it added.
Telegrass has let sellers list their wares and prices, exchanging self-deleting messages with buyers to set up deliveries.
Silver has previously described himself as a marijuana legalisation activist who was not in it for financial gain.
Some politicians have taken up the issue of marijuana legalisation ahead of Israel's April 9 polls, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Monday night that he might consider it.
"I have led some changes in this area," he said on his Likud party's YouTube video channel.
"We have increased the use of medical cannabis, bringing Israel to one of the highest levels in the world."
Asked about legalisation in general, he replied: "I'm checking your question. I'll give you an answer soon."
The government in January gave the final go-ahead for the export of medical cannabis, a move expected to generate significant revenues for the state.
In 2017, the public security ministry partially decriminalised recreational marijuana use, setting fines and treatment for initial offenders instead of criminal procedures. – Rappler.com