MELBOURNE, Victoria, Australia - A massive haul of cocaine destined for the streets of Australia has been seized by Australian law enforcement agencies.
Five men, members of a Melbourne-based criminal syndicate, with alleged links to Italian organised crime have been arrested. They have been charged with conspiring to import over 500 kilograms of cocaine worth $80 million from Papua New Guinea (PNG) into Australia.
The Australian Federal Police (AFP), working with Queensland and Victoria Police, Australian Border Force (ABF), Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC) and the Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary (RPNGC), have charged the men, all of whom are now facing life imprisonment.
The cocaine was seized on Friday night by the RPNGC - and never made it to Australian shores.
The five alleged conspirators were arrested in Queensland and Victoria olast Sunday after a Cessna model light aircraft departed Mareeba Airport for PNG. In a coordinated effort across multiple locations, several search warrants were executed across Victoria, NSW, Queensland and PNG.
The Queensland Joint Organised Crime Taskforce, together with Victoria Police and RPNGC, allege the group traveled from Melbourne and Sydney to Atherton between 19 and 25 July, with the aim of carrying out the importation and collection of cocaine from PNG, estimated to be valued at more than $80 million the equivalent of about 500,000 street deals.
The group then allegedly organized a flight on the light aircraft to PNG on the morning of 26 July 2020, where a member of the group (a pilot) attempted to collect the illicit cargo.
The AFP alleges the aircraft flew at a height of about 3,000 feet from Mareeba to PNG, in an effort to avoid radar detection. These flights, they say, are dangerous for other aircraft as well as those on board, in addition to being illegal and unauthorised.
On Sunday 26 July 2020, between 1:00pm and 2.30pm, the aircraft crashed while attempting to take-off from a remote airstrip at Papa Lea Lea, north of Port Moresby, PNG. The AFP alleges greed played a significant part in the syndicate's activities and suspect the amount of cocaine they tried to transport had an impact on the plane's ability to take off.
About 11:45am on Tuesday f this week (28 July 2020), the pilot, an Australian national, presented himself to the Australian Consulate in PNG. He has been arrested and charged with a PNG Immigration offence.
Following ongoing international cooperation, the investigation into the location of the cocaine continued in PNG, with the Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary (RPNGC) being assisted by the AFP. Late on Friday,, the RPNGC located a number of items it will be alleged were linked to the flight, including 28 bags believed to contain 500 plus kilograms of cocaine. RPNGC analysis of the seizure is continuing and a number of men are assisting RPNGC with their inquiries.
In Australia, a 31-year-old Maribyrnong (Victoria) man arrested at Atherton on Sunday faced the Cairns Magistrates Court on Monday, charged with:
- Conspiracy to import commercial quantities of border controlled drugs.
- Importing commercial quantities of border controlled drugs.
- Directing activities of a criminal syndicate.
- Money laundering of over $1 million.
- Two charges of dealing in proceeds of crime over $100,000.
The maximum penalty if convicted is life imprisonment.
A 36-year-old Liverpool (NSW) man arrested at Atherton on Sunday faced the Cairns Magistrates Court on Friday, charged with:
- Conspiracy to import commercial quantities of border controlled drugs.
- Providing material support or resources to a criminal organisation.
The maximum penalty if convicted of these offences is life imprisonment.
A 31-year-old Hoppers Crossing (Victoria) man arrested in the Atherton area, was charged with attempting to possess border controlled drugs. The maximum penalty if convicted is life imprisonment.
It will be alleged this man was tasked by the syndicate to transport the drugs south via a heavy vehicle.
Two men arrested in Melbourne in joint AFP and Victoria Police action - a 33-year-old Niddrie man and a 61-year-old Melbourne man - appeared in Melbourne Magistrates Court on Monday charged with conspiring to import commercial quantities border controlled drugs. The men will reappear again on 10 August 2020 to face an extradition hearing to Queensland. The maximum penalty if convicted is life imprisonment.
As part of the operation the AFP-led Criminal Assets Confiscation Taskforce (CACT) restrained property and financial assets suspected to be under the effective control of a syndicate member, with an estimated total value of $3.5 million.
The assets include three properties, shares, account funds, and a motor vehicle, all restrained under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 (Cth), by orders made by the County Court of Victoria on Monday.
AFP Deputy Commissioner Investigations Ian McCartney said the resolution of the almost two-year multi-agency operation demonstrated a commitment by Australian authorities working with international law enforcement to prevent illicit drugs from reaching the streets and suburbs and causing harm to the Australian community.
"These arrests prove no matter how sophisticated or opportunistic organized crime's attempts are, or the methods they use, law enforcement is keeping pace and causing maximum damage to these criminal ventures," Deputy Commissioner McCartney said Saturday.
"With current interstate travel restrictions in place due to Covid-19, the attempt to import illicit drugs into Australia shows how opportunistic and greedy organized crime can be. Australian law enforcement remains committed to working collectively to protect Australia, which is especially important now, due to the ongoing impact of the pandemic on the community."
Deputy Commissioner Tracy Linford, Queensland Police Service, said partner agencies were committed to working together to disrupt serious and organised crime.
"Law enforcement is united in the fight against organised criminal behaviour that crosses jurisdictions and we will continue our joint approach with state, national and international partners to stop dangerous drugs impacting the Australian community," Deputy Commissioner Linford said Saturday.
Assistant Commissioner Tess Walsh, Victoria Police Crime Command, said these arrests were the results of months of hard work from across a number of agencies.
"This outcome has only been possible due to the incredible cooperation we've had between law enforcement agencies who were all committed to a single goal, which was to dismantle this syndicate," she said Saturday.
"We strongly believe these arrests will notably reduce the amount of illegal drugs being distributed along the eastern seaboard and should serve as a warning for anyone who believes this type of offending is acceptable."
"The pursuit of drug manufacturers and traffickers is something that never ends for police."
ABF Assistant Commissioner, Peter Timson, said that the ABF was resolutely focused on the protection of Australia's borders to prevent the appalling community impact of illegal drug importation.
"This particularly audacious attempt shows just how brazen criminal enterprises can be, but it also highlights just how effective the law enforcement response can be when we all work together," he said Saturday.
Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC) Acting CEO Matthew Rippon said that the ACIC's National Wastewater Drug Monitoring Program clearly showed us that Australians still have an insatiable appetite for illicit substances.
"The evidence through our wastewater analysis indicates that large law enforcement disruptions such as this have a significant impact on community consumption. I congratulate our partner agencies on this disruption and making our local communities safer," said Mr Rippon on Saturday.
RPNGC Commissioner David Manning said the RPNGC had a long and enduring history of working collaboratively with Australian law-enforcement to combat transnational crime impacting PNG and Australia.
"These arrests send a clear message that PNG will not tolerate transnational crime syndicates using our nation as a transit point for illicit commodities intended for Australia. We will continue our joint efforts to see that those involved in PNG are bought to justice," Commissioner Manning said Saturday.
The Queensland JOCTF comprises investigators from the Australian Federal Police (AFP), Queensland Police Service (QPS), Australian Border Force (ABF), Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC) and the Department of Home Affairs with the assistance of the Australian Taxation Office and AUSTRAC.
The AFP-led CACT taskforce, which includes staff from the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission, AUSTRAC, Australian Border Force and the Australian Taxation Office, was formed in 2011 as part of a multi-agency crackdown on criminal assets.