Organised crime syndicate charged and more than 500kg of cocaine seized in PNG

Members of a Melbourne-based criminal syndicate, with alleged links to Italian organised crime, have been charged for conspiring to import over 500 kilograms of cocaine from 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 five men, all facing life imprisonment. The cocaine was seized last night by the RPNGC – and never made it to Australian shores, preventing significant harm to the Australian community.

The five alleged conspirators were arrested in Queensland and Victoria on 26 July 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, working closely with Victoria Police and RPNGC, will allege the group travelled 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 facilitated 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 about 3000 feet from Mareeba to PNG, in an effort to avoid radar detection. These flights are dangerous for other aircraft as well as those on board, in addition to being illegal and unauthorised.

On 26 July 2020, between 1pm 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 cannot rule out that the weight of the cocaine had an impact on the planes ability to take off.

About 11.45am on 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, 31 July 2020, the RPNGC located a number of items it will be alleged were linked to the flight, including 28 bags believed to contain 500 plus kilogram haul 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 26 July faced the Cairns Magistrates Court on 27 July, charged with:

  • Conspiracy to import commercial quantities of border controlled drugs, contrary to section 307.1(1) and Section 11.5(1) Criminal Code Act 1995 (Cth);
  • Importing commercial quantities of border controlled drugs, contrary to Section 307.1() Criminal Code Act 1995 (Cth);
  • Directing activities of a criminal syndicate, contrary to Section 390.6 Criminal Code Act 1995 (Cth);
  • Money laundering over $1 million, contrary to Section 400.3 Criminal Code Act 1995 (Cth);
  • Two charges of dealing in proceeds of crime over $100,000, contrary to Section 400.4 Criminal Code Act 1995 (Cth).

The maximum penalty if convicted is life imprisonment.

  • A 36-year-old Liverpool (NSW) man arrested at Atherton on 26 July faced the Cairns Magistrates Court yesterday, charged with:
  • Conspiracy to import commercial quantities of border controlled drugs., contrary to Section 307.1(1) and Section 11.5(1) Criminal Code Act 1995 (Cth);
  • Providing material support or resources to a criminal organisation, contrary to section 390.41 Criminal Code Act 1995 (Cth).

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, contrary to Section 307.5 and 11.1 Criminal Code Act 1995 (Cth). 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 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 27 July 2020 charged with conspiring to import commercial quantities border controlled drugs, contrary to Section 307.1(1) Criminal Code (Cth). 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 AUD.

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 27 July, 2020.

AFP Deputy Commissioner Investigations Ian McCartney said the resolution of the almost two-year multi-agency operation demonstrated a commitment by Australian authorities working collaboratively 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 organised 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.

“With current interstate travel restrictions in place due to COVID-19, the attempt to import illicit drugs into Australia shows how opportunistic and greedy organised 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.

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.

“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.

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.

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.

The Queensland JOCTF comprises of 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 valuable 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.

This complex transnational investigation was conducted with the special assistance of Victoria Police and the Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary (RPNGC).

Vision and images of the operation can be downloaded here

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