Australian police dismantled a major cocaine smuggling ring after a two-and-a-half-year multi-agency operation undertaken with Tahiti, Australian authorities announced on Thursday.
Operation Okesi, which began in July 2014, culminated in a Christmas-night seizure of 500 kilograms of cocaine in New South Wales in eastern Australia.
That seizure came after 606 kg of the drug were intercepted by the French navy off Tahiti in March this year and after 32 kg of heroin was seized in Fiji in December 2014.
"The size of that seizure collectively — 1.1 tonnes [2,425 pounds] — makes it the largest cocaine seizure in Australian law-enforcement history," Australian Federal Police acting Assistant Commissioner Chris Sheehan said.
"The criminal syndicate that we have dismantled over the past few days was a robust, resilient and determined syndicate," he added.
All of the drugs were reportedly destined for the Australian market, and the cocaine, which originated in South America, reportedly had a value of $260 million.
Police began making busts on December 25, when detectives intercepted 500 kg of cocaine on a rubber boat as it pulled into a boat ramp at Brooklyn on central coast of New South Wales.
The operation led to the arrest of 15 men, ranging in age from 29 to 63, who were detained between December 25 and 28. Reportedly among them was a former player for the Sydney Roosters rugby team.
According to Sydney's Daily Telegraph, police will allege that the ring used Sydney Fish Market-based trawler Dalrymple, which was taken out to see to rendezvous with a "mother ship" that had traveled from South America.
The smuggling ring allegedly used such trawlers to move cocaine into Australia from Chile, which is known to be a major transshipment point for cocaine coming out of South America and has become Australia's primary source country for the drug.
The operation began in summer 2014 as an investigation of suspected drug smuggling by commercial fishermen in Sydney. The three drug busts mounted since then were some of five alleged conspiracies identified by authorities during their investigation.
Sheehan, of the Australian Federal Police, called the alleged drug ring "selfish" and "brazen."
The total value of the cocaine seized, about $260 million, works out to a little over $236,000 a kilogram (about 2.2 pounds) and is in line with the $228,000 to $259,000 a kilogram wholesale-price range that cocaine is believed to fetch on the Australian market — well above the average wholesale price of $87,000 in the UK and $54,000 in the US.
Australia is thought to have been the target of several Mexican cartels seeking to expand into Asian-Pacific drug markets and fill the vacuum left by the dismantling of previously dominant Colombian trafficking groups.
The presence of Mexican cartels in Australia was first noted in 2010, when several Mexican citizens with ties to cartel groups were arrested in counter-drug operations.
Its size notwithstanding, the operation that culminated on December 25 is only the most recent major drug bust in Australia.
In October, two Polish nationals were accused of importing $110 million worth of ecstasy to the country in a shipment of sheet metal from the Czech Republic.
At the end of August, three Canadian tourists were arrested aboard a cruise ship in Sydney after authorities said they found 200 pounds of cocaine in their luggage. Two of the tourists — women ages 28 and 22 — gained international attention after it was revealed they had documented their entire trip on Instagram.
All told, in the last fiscal year, Australia's border authorities uncovered 18,000 narcotics-importation attempts.
New South Wales Police Force Commissioner Mark Jenkins said over 100 officers worked over Christmas and Boxing Day to bring the alleged drug ring down, according to The Daily Telegraph.
"It’s quite a chuck out of the cocaine economy," he said.
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