Six men, aged between 32 and 66, have been charged with serious drug importation offences after more than 1.4 tonnes of cocaine was seized from a yacht.
It follows a long-running Australian Federal Police (AFP) investigation supported by the New Zealand Customs Service (NZCS), Organised Financial Crime Agency of New Zealand (OFCANZ), the Fijian Transnational Crime Unit, French Polynesian authorities and Australian Border Force (ABF).
In August 2014, the AFP received intelligence from the NZCS about a conspiracy to import a commercial quantity of border-controlled drugs into Australia.
Police will allege a sailing vessel, the Elakha, travelled from New Zealand to a ‘mothership’ in the South Pacific Ocean last month to collect the drugs.
Shortly before midnight on Thursday, 2 February 2017, the HMAS Bathurst intercepted the Elakha. Maritime Border Command (MBC) personnel boarded the vessel, and the two crew members – a 63-year-old New Zealand man and a 54-year-old dual Swiss/Fijian national – were detained under the Maritime Powers Act 2013 (Cth).
Black bags containing a large quantity of blocks were discovered on the vessel. Initial testing of the blocks returned a positive result for cocaine with an estimated weight of approximately 1422 kilograms (1.4 tonnes).
This amount of cocaine has a street value of approximately $312 million, though further forensic testing will be conducted to determine exact weight and purity.
On Friday, 3 February 2017, two Sydney men – aged 63 and 62– travelled to the NSW South Coast, where they met a 66-year-old man. Police will allege the three men intended to launch a motor vessel to meet the Elakha at sea before returning to shore with the drugs.
The AFP arrested and charged the three men with conspiracy to import a commercial quantity of a border controlled drug. They appeared in Nowra Local Court on Saturday, 4 February 2017, and were refused bail. They will reappear in the Central Local Court on Wednesday, 8 February 2017.
On Friday, 3 February 2017, police arrested a fourth man in Sydney who is also alleged to be involved in the conspiracy to import the cocaine.
On Sunday, 5 February 2017, the HMAS Bathurst returned to Sydney with the Elakha and its detained crew. The two men were arrested on arrival, and were later also charged with conspiracy to import a commercial quantity of a border controlled drug. They are scheduled to appear in the Central Local Court today, 6 February 2017.
The maximum penalty for this offence is life imprisonment or 7500 penalty units or both.
AFP acting Deputy Commissioner Operations, Neil Gaughan, said the investigation has spanned more than two-and-a-half years, and its success was a testament to the tenacity and dedication of the investigators involved.
‘Our officers based in Brisbane have been doggedly pursuing this matter since 2014. The interception of this huge volume of drugs and the charging of these six men is a testament to the officer’s drive and determination,” acting Deputy Commissioner Gaughan said.
‘It also highlights the importance of our close working relationships with our local and internal law enforcement partners – without which this operation could not have succeeded.’
Deputy Commissioner Operations Michael Outram said Australian Border Force officers worked tirelessly with our law enforcement partners over the course of the investigation culminating in one of the biggest drug seizure in recent times.
‘We hope that this operation sends a strong message to anyone thinking of smuggling drugs: no matter how innovative or complex their ways are, our evolving detection methods and resources, including at sea, will keep up with them,’ Deputy Commissioner Outram said.
Chief of Operations Maritime Border Command, Air Commodore Jake Campbell, said the successful outcome of the operation showcases the sophisticated work of the MBC, Australia’s leading civil maritime security authority.
‘The unique multi-agency blend of the MBC means we have at our disposal advanced technology, resources and highly trained officers to target, detect and seize illicit drugs before they reach our border,’ Chief of Operations Campbell said.
New Zealand Customs, Group Manager Intelligence, Investigations and Enforcement, Jamie Bamford, said this significant seizure is the culmination of a three-year investigation by New Zealand Customs into the activities of the Elakha and its crew.
‘Intelligence obtained by Customs was shared with the Australian Federal Police and Australian Border Force and this seizure is testament to the strong partnerships and cooperation between New Zealand, Australia and Pacific nations focused on combatting drug smuggling operations in the region. Our partnerships enable us to act as one and our sophisticated intelligence capabilities and commitment prevent drugs reaching our communities,’ said Mr Bamford.
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