A major cocaine ring has been dismantled in joint operations with Tahiti, Australian police said on Thursday, with a record 1.1 tonnes of cocaine worth hundreds of millions of dollars seized.
Police listed 500kg (1,102 lbs) of cocaine seized on Christmas Day in Sydney, and previous seizures of 600kgs of cocaine intercepted by the French navy off Tahiti and 32kg of heroin in Fiji – all destined for the Australian market.
“The size of that seizure collectively – 1.1 tonnes – makes it the largest cocaine seizure in Australian law enforcement history,” Chris Sheehan, the Australian Federal Police (AFP) acting assistant commissioner, said.
A former rugby player, a Bondi entrepreneur and several fishermen were among 15 men arrested during Operation Okesi.
On Christmas night, police raided a ship at Sydney Fish Market and seized more than 500kg of cocaine estimated to be worth AUD162 million (£95m) as part of a two-and-a-half year investigation into a smuggling ring based in Chile.
The Sydney Morning Herald reported they had used a shipping vessel named Dalrymple to ferry drugs between New South Wales (NSW) ports and a larger ship stationed out at sea that held drugs smuggled from Chile.
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In footage released by NSW Police, some of the 15 alleged offenders can be seen in handcuffs at a ship docked at the Sydney Fish Markets in Pyrmont.
A further 600kg of cocaine destined for Australia, estimated to be worth about $197 million, was seized in Tahiti in March and 32kg of heroin in Fiji in December 2014.
Operation Okesi, comprising officers from NSW Police, Australian Federal Police and Australian Border Force, started more than two-and-a-half-years after police received a tip from a member of the public. Since then, five alleged importations by the sophisticated syndicate have been thwarted, police announced on Thursday.
Mark Jenkins, NSW Police State crime commander, said on Thursday that all the drugs originated in South America before being transferred across the South Pacific by ship.
Since the operation on Christmas night, where seven men were arrested, a further eight men were taken into custody in the following four days.
Among the 15 men arrested in relation to the syndicate are a former Rugby League star and Bondi cafe king, local media reported.
“The criminal syndicate that we have dismantled over the past few days was a robust, resilient and determined syndicate,” Mr Sheenan said.
“It’s a significant hit… the entire group has been taken out,” added Mr Jenkins.
“It’s quite a chunk out of the cocaine economy… over one tonne of drugs has been prevented from reaching the streets … and harming the community.”
The arrested, 14 Australians and one New Zealander aged between 29 and 63 years, were charged with serious drug importation offences and all were refused bail.
The maximum penalty for conspiracy to import a commercial quantity of border controlled drugs is life imprisonment.
Mr Sheehan said the activity conducted in the past week was the culmination of a complex investigation which crossed domestic and international borders.
He said: “We’ve stopped around a tonne of cocaine and a commercial quantity of heroin reaching the Australian community. Additionally, we’ve prevented future importations by apprehending 15 men for their alleged involvement in the criminal syndicate responsible for this attempted importation.
“This operation is a clear indication that working together with our law enforcement and border protection partners is imperative in combating an increasingly complex, transnational criminal environment.”
Mr Jenkins said the joint operation proved law enforcement and border protection agencies do not rest when it comes to illicit drug importation – even at Christmas.
“The dedication of all officers involved over the course of this investigation needs to be commended – especially those who sacrificed precious time with family and friends to ensure these dangerous drugs didn’t reach the streets,” Mr Jenkins said.
With high street prices attracting drug sellers to Australia, police said they made more than 18,000 imported drug seizures in the last year.