Organised criminal gangs from Liverpool have risen to the summit of the UK underworld and “dominate” the firearms and drugs-trade outside London, the latest intelligence from senior officers at the National Crime Agency (NCA) reveals.

Analysis of encrypted messages from a communications system used by criminals has shown that the city has become the preeminent location for top-tier gangs sourcing high-volume importations of drugs and automatic weapons.

Senior NCA firearms officers said that the city’s geography, its demographics, history of serious organised crime, and the willingness of gang members to embrace the latest criminal innovations were behind its rise.

While combing through data from an encrypted chat service gathered as part of Operation Venetic, the UK’s largest law-enforcement initiative, officers from the NCA’s National Firearms Threat Centre (NFTC) found that more than 70% of all links to weapons examined led back to Liverpool and the north-west of England.

Rob Hickinbottom, lead on the NFTC, said: “Most of the cases have a very strong connection to the north-west.” Matt Perfect, the firearms threat lead for the NCA, said that intelligence from EncroChat, an encrypted phone and chat service, had offered a unique insight into how the criminal landscape was controlled outside the M25: “The evidence is that the north-west groups pretty much dominate the rest of the [criminal] communities in the UK.”

Analysis by the NFTC found that Merseyside and the broader north-west corridor was home to a network of gun factories converting low-calibre weapons such as the Czech-made Škorpion and Slovakian Grand Power into deadly automatic firearms.

Perfect said that converting weapons was seen by some in the region as a viable business. A low-calibre Glock handgun bought for £135 in eastern Europe could be converted in just 90 seconds to a 9mm weapon that could be sold for up to £5,000.

The korpion Vz61, A Czech 7.65 mm submachine gun. Photograph: Military Images/Alamy Stock Photo

“The mark-up is quite staggering. Liverpool, the north-west, is so active in this area,” said Perfect. Hickinbottom said that north-west-based “resellers” were importing £3.50 plastic switches from China that could swiftly convert a Glock into an automatic firearm.

Last week, police raids in Liverpool included raids on individuals suspected of importing guns, ammunition and firearm components.

Analysis of the intelligence from EncroChat has revealed other surprises to firearms officers. Perfect said: “If you’d asked me before Venetic what was the firearm of choice for an organised crime group, I’d have absolutely said the Glock handgun. Venetic showed that the Škorpion SMG and the Grand Power are now becoming that weapon of choice.”

Liverpool’s top-tier gangs have successfully utilised the city’s geography – the secret EncroChat messages confirm that they source cocaine direct from South American cartels via the city’s vast container port.

“Operation Venetic has definitely identified that link between high end drugs supply, drugs coming in from south america. We’re talking high end drugs coming into the country in significant amounts, that when marketed feed the county lines, we know are so prevalent nationwide and damaging some communities,” said Hickinbottom.

Relationships have also been forged with serious organised-crime groups across the Irish Sea.

“If you are at the top end of serious organised crime you have that reach into Ireland, good connections to Scotland, the gun capital of Manchester. Probably the only place that isolates you is the London market,” said Perfect.

He also pointed to the historical “credibility” of Liverpool’s organised-crime groups and figures such as Curtis Warren, 57, from Toxteth, who was once Interpol’s Target One and is thought to have made £300m from drug-smuggling during the 1990s.

Curtis Warren is thought to have made £300m from drug-smuggling during the 1990s. Photograph: States of Jersey Police/PA

“In Liverpool and the north-west there is a combination of really good business entrepreneurs that have evolved from the days of Curtis Warren, learnt new mechanisms, means of communication, transport, and concealment,” said Perfect.

This criminal skillset, he, should be considered alongside the city’s demographics. Research released before the pandemic showed that a third of children across the Liverpool City region lived below the poverty line.

“You look at the consistent demographic of unemployment and deprived areas and how serious organised crime has evolved. If you did an assessment on how society has evolved with serious organised crime, Liverpool’s gangs have probably been at the forefront,” said Perfect.

But the kingpins of Merseyside’s criminal syndicates have largely fled the city, electing to direct large-scale importation of firearms and drugs from overseas, most often from Holland, Dubai and the south of Spain. Analysis from Operation Venetic has also showed that some directed hitmen to execute rivals from their overseas bases. In some cases grenades were left in the gardens of targets.

Being abroad also offers the advantage of face-to-face networking with other international criminals.

“These locations operate like the Wall Street of criminality. Your highest-end members have to be present and carry that level of credibility; you’re not going to be doing that from Liverpool.

“You might want access to South Americans, access to Dutch hauliers for logistics, access to customers back in the UK. It’s about sculpting your business model,” said Perfect.