The crew of Royal Australian Navy’s Armidale-class patrol boat made history on February 2 after intercepting a smuggling boat with approximately 1422 kilograms (1.4 tonnes) on board.
According to the Australian Department of Immigration and Border Protection, this is the largest cocaine interception in the country’s history.
Preliminary findings say the cocaine has a street value of approximately $312 million.
Six men, aged between 32 and 66, have been charged with serious drug importation offences as a result of this investigation.
The drug bust is the result of an almost three-year operation supported by a number of border and customs agencies in Asia Pacific.
In August 2014, the Australian Federal Police (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, traveled 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).
On Friday, 3 February, 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, police arrested a fourth man in Sydney who is also alleged to be involved in the conspiracy to import the cocaine.
The HMAS Bathurst returned to Sydney with the Elakha and its detained crew two days later, on February 5. 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.
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 3-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 combating 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 Bamford.