More than 800kg of cocaine seized in Western Australia, three arrests

Police have charged three men allegedly linked to a transnational serious organised crime syndicate that attempted to smuggle more than 800kg of cocaine into Australia hidden on a bulk cargo carrier.

The joint agency investigation started after authorities received intelligence about a plot for an illicit consignment of drugs to be dropped in the ocean off the West Australian coast in May for collection by an Australian-based syndicate.

Authorities were investigating bulk cargo carriers destined for WA ports in May when on 24 May, 2023, Western Australia Police Force (WAPF) and Volunteer Marine Rescue WA assisted the crew of a 10m cabin cruiser in distress near Rottnest Island, about 22km off the coast of Fremantle.

Three men were onboard the cabin cruiser, named ‘No Fixed Address’.

Law enforcement suspicions were raised after the AFP identified the cabin cruiser had been purchased using cash a day earlier, just hours before it was taken out to sea, and accounts of the trio’s trip seemed suspicious. The men also appeared to have limited boating experience and allegedly told police they had engine trouble.

Australian Border Force (ABF) and the AFP started investigating bulk cargo vessels that were in the area at the same time the cabin cruiser was in the water. The movements of the bulk cargo carrier, Merchant Vessel ST Pinot, were identified as potentially matching the intelligence developed by authorities.  

ABF officers boarded the vessel at sea, which had travelled from South America, last Thursday (25 May, 2023) to undertake a search and interview the crew.

The vessel was taken to the Port of Fremantle and later moved to a berth located at Kwinana, where AFP, ABF and WAPF members searching the vessel found suspicious packages submerged in a water-filled ballast tank.

Royal Australian Navy clearance divers retrieved 28 large packages wrapped in blue plastic from the water and another package was retrieved once the tank was drained. Each of the 29 packages contains numerous one-kilogram blocks of a white powdered substance. Forensic tests returned positive results for cocaine.

Testing of the total weight and purity of the seized drugs is ongoing, but it is expected the seizure will total more than 800kg of cocaine.

Had the drugs made it to Australian streets they could have been sold as 4 million individual deals (0.2g each) worth an estimated $320,000,000.

The three men who had been on the 10m cabin cruiser were arrested on Wednesday (31 May, 2023). Two were taken into custody in Perth, while the third was arrested in Sydney as he tried to board a flight overseas.

Police will allege the trio had gone out to sea in the cabin cruiser to collect the drugs.

The men, aged 21, 25 and 29, were charged with:

  • Attempting to import a commercial quantity of a border controlled drug, contrary to section 307.1, by virtue of section 11.1, of the Criminal Code 1995 (Cth).

The two men arrested in Perth faced court yesterday (1 June, 2023), while the third man, aged 21, is expected to be extradited from Sydney to Perth. He is a Lithuanian national who arrived in Australia on 16 May (2023).

They face a maximum penalty of life imprisonment if convicted.

Investigations are ongoing into the alleged involvement of the crew of the cargo vessel and a search of that vessel is continuing.

AFP Assistant Commissioner Pryce Scanlan said cocaine was a highly consumed illicit drug in Australia and caused psychological, financial and social harm to users and those around them.

 “The seizure demonstrates the importance of collaboration between law enforcement – the AFP is working tirelessly with partners to disrupt attempts by organised crime to import large quantities of illicit drugs into Australia and profit at the expense of the community,” Assistant Commissioner Scanlan said.

“The illicit drug supply chain is littered with violence and had this amount of cocaine made its way to Australian streets, it would have spread through our suburbs fuelling more violence, crime and drug addiction.

 “We must continue to tackle drug supplies directly before they reach our streets, and the AFP’s well-established presence internationally puts us in a prime position to disrupt the importation of drugs before they can damage our communities.

“The community needs to be aware that their illicit drug use bankrolls violent transnational serious organised crime groups, who may also be involved in other abhorrent crimes.”

WA Police Force Assistant Commissioner Tony Longhorn, from State Crime Command, said the partnerships between state, national and international law enforcement and intelligence partners had never been stronger.

“Protecting our community from the misery and harm that illicit drugs cause is the main driving force behind every decision we make, and relies on our agencies working together to identity, disrupt and dismantle the serious organised crime groups targeting our shores,” Assistant Commissioner Longhorn said.

“We continue to learn more about their operations and deploy our overt and covert assets accordingly.

“Our recent successes have proven we now have an extensive global reach, and our investigations into the syndicate behind this latest seizure is ongoing and we will go wherever is needed in the world to track down those responsible.”

 ABF Commander Operations West Ranjeev Maharaj said the Australian border was a strategic national asset critical to driving Australia’s economy, so its protection against illicit drug importation was vital.

“Cocaine shipments are being seized at Australia’s borders at record levels, and criminal syndicates should understand that the ABF does not work in isolation, but rather in partnership with domestic and foreign agencies,” Commander Maharaj said.

“It’s incredible to think that those behind this audacious attempt thought they could get away it.

“The ABF, in collaboration with our partner agencies, will continue to structure efforts in deterring, detecting and disrupting those who seek to import harmful drugs into Australia.”

ACIC Executive Director Intelligence Operations Jennifer Hurst congratulated our partners on this significant seizure.

“ACIC intelligence shows that serious and organised criminals continue to actively attempt to supply Australia’s cocaine market. The ACIC works tirelessly with its partners – both domestically and offshore –sharing mission critical intelligence with them to help protect Australia from transnational serious and organised crime,” Ms Hurst said.