It was labelled by Australian police and politicians a “landmark day” in the never-ending fight against the drug trade. Close to three tonnes of illicit drugs, mostly ecstasy tablets, speed and ice had been detected by local police and law enforcement, hidden among furniture in a single shipping container that had made its way from Hamburg in Germany to Sydney’s western suburbs. With the drugs’ estimated street value $1.5 billion, the bust amounted to the second-largest in the nation’s history.
“Today is a landmark day in the fight against drugs and organised crime,” then prime minister Tony Abbott said of the November 2014 bust.
The massive haul was placed in clear plastic bags and paraded for television cameras and newspaper photographers. Standing alongside the drugs, then long-time NSW police commissioner Andrew Scipione said the bust revealed “organised crime at its worst and law enforcement at its best".
But Fairfax Media can reveal that law enforcement sources believe that at least three drug shipments of the same size slipped through the borders before that sting – resulting in close to nine tonnes of illicit drugs on the streets. The shipments are believed to have been arranged and brokered by Australian crime figures who had based themselves offshore. Law enforcement has told Fairfax Media there is an ever-increasing number of Australian crime figures now moving overseas and operating this way.
In fact, it is estimated that a staggering 70 per cent of Australia’s high-end criminal targets and their associates are now based overseas. These people pose Australia’s biggest organised crime threat – and they are behind the unprecedented amount of drugs breaching the country’s borders. The Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC) acting executive director, intelligence, Richard Grant says that, while globalisation has resulted in popular services such as Netflix and Amazon, criminals have also taken advantage of it. As well as driving the domestic market by importing tonnes of drugs into Australia each year, many of the notorious criminals are suspected of organising dozens of Sydney’s gangland murders.
Hard to crack The NSW Crime Commission’s annual report has warned that organised crime “is increasing and is at levels not seen previously in NSW”. The root of the problem is the unrelenting tide of drug importations, the overseas criminals driving the tonne-heavy consignments and the technology aiding their exports. While considered largely obsolete to the wider public, the device of choice for organised criminals is the Blackberry with additional encryption software such as that offered by Canadian firm Phantom Secure.
Phones with this software and a US SIM card can be bought in Sydney for between $2300 and $2800 with a six-month subscription. These phones are almost impossible to crack. So much money is being generated by these networks that they can afford to have hundreds of kilograms of drugs seized at ports or mail centres because other consignments of the same size have already slipped through undetected.
The NSW Crime Commission has previously said that the large amounts of cash generated from the large commercial drug deals provides “the many and varied groups with the resources to purchase expertise that in many cases outstrips the expertise that law enforcement agencies can afford”. The 2.8 tonnes seizure in December 2014 cost the criminal syndicate $22 million – a cost shared between a number of crime groups in a joint venture. Estimates from law enforcement suggest that, if that particular shipment had made its way in undetected and had been distributed among drug runs and sold on the streets, even at wholesale prices, the profits would have exceeded $400 million.
The NSW Crime Commission has said that the “high number of detections, arrests and seizures have had little, if any, deterrence value for offshore groups” and, in many cases, those operating overseas have been able to “replace persons arrested in Australia with relative ease”. While seizures have increased, the price that crime groups pay overseas suppliers for drugs has decreased, a strong indication that large quantities are still getting into the country.
Investigators have also noticed that crime syndicates have been adopting new ways to import drugs rather than just concealing substances in shipping containers. Australian Border Force has noted an increase in syndicates hiring commercial vessels from Asian ports that act as “mother ships” delivering to smaller vessels from Australia. And in mid-November, a yacht carrying 700kg of cocaine, believed to have come from South America and then Tahiti, was discovered at Lake Macquarie, north of Sydney.
It is at least the third-largest haul of cocaine found on yachts sailing towards NSW from the South Pacific in recent months. “One of the biggest challenges that I am seeing at the moment is that the drugs are coming from far greater avenues than what there were,” State Crime Command’s new Assistant Commissioner, Mal Lanyon, says. “It links back to the transnational nature of crime so we know we have got criminals from NSW living in various parts of the world basically to conduct illegal activity and to get drugs into NSW.”
What police would classify as a big seizure has changed dramatically over the past decade. Mr Lanyon said that if someone had imported 20 kilograms of drugs 10 years ago that would have been significant; now police and Australian Border Force are seizing single shipments concealing tonnes of drugs. Some of Australia’s better-known criminals have shown up in countries such as Vietnam, Thailand, Lebanon and Turkey. There is also information that points to them working hand-in-hand with cartels in Mexico who have almost exclusive access to cocaine supplies. The presence of Mexican cartels operating in Australia was first noticed in 2008 and their influence has steadily grown since.
More money, more murder
While these high-profile, offshore figures act as “conduits” for crime networks importing drugs into Australia, police suspect some of them have also ordered dozens of NSW’s organised crime murders over the past decade. “Murders are symptomatic of heightened organised crime activity,” the NSW Crime Commission says in its latest annual report. The ability to raise vast amounts of cash enables organised crime groups to source weapons and hire people prepared to undertake murder for profit. Many of those remain unsolved. “What we have found is a lot of senior members of outlaw motorcycle gangs who have traditionally been what I would consider the more violent or dangerous ones are now the ones offshore,” Mr Lanyon said. “So I think there would be little doubt they are having reach in NSW.”
Some overseas locations favoured by criminals don’t have extradition treaties with Australia, leading the crime figures to believe they are untouchable. This perception was shattered in early August when members of infamous Sydney crime families were arrested in Dubai in a transnational drug sting. Michael Ibrahim as well as Mustapha “Fairy” Dib and Steven Elmir have been charged over the alleged plan to import hundreds of kilograms of cocaine and MDMA. The drugs, from the Netherlands, were allegedly meant to make their way into Australia via corrupt border official. Fadi Ibrahim was also arrested, accused of drawing $800,000 from the mortgage on his house to help fund his brother Michael's alleged international crime syndicate. Like many of their associates, the men, all from humble suburban beginnings in Sydney’s south-west, had increased their time in Dubai in the months before their arrests, indulging in the city’s restaurants and luxury yachts while allegedly plotting the international drug conspiracy.
Meanwhile, ex-Comancheros boss Mark Buddle moved overseas last year, spreading his time between Europe and Thailand after he emerged as a suspect in multiple murder investigations in NSW. Six years earlier, bikie comrade and drug lord Hakan Ayik had moved to his native Istanbul. He has since popped up in tapped communications with drug suppliers in Australia discussing overseas importation. In late August, authorities claimed one of the biggest scalps for Australian law enforcement.
After years of being out of reach, former king Cross identity Vaso Ulic was arrested in Montenegro. Ulic has emerged as a heavy hitter in several major drug imports into Australia – one of his jobs involved importing more than 60 kilograms of MDMA into Melbourne in 2008. He masterminded the entire operation from thousands of kilometres away in Eastern Europe, directing associates in Australia in how to turn the drugs into pills, on-sell the product and send the proceeds via money remitters back to Europe.
Source: Sydney Morning Herald, Nick Ralston