Despite predictions COVID-19 would put a stranglehold on the global drug market, drug smugglers are taking greater risks by sailing directly into Australia.
Despite predictions COVID-19 would put a stranglehold on the global drug market, drug smugglers are taking greater risks by sailing directly into Australia.

How smugglers are defying COVID to bring drugs in

Police claim drug smugglers are taking greater risks during the pandemic by sailing directly from Central America and Asia with their contraband.

Police said boats packed with drugs are then trying to sneak into major NSW ports undetected rather than using obscure ports to mask their criminal activity.

Despite predictions COVID-19 could put a stranglehold on the global drug market, NSW Police this year recorded a "significant increase" in large scale importations.

The worth of drugs that NSW Police's State Crime Command seized increased by 50 per cent this year and included two record-breaking one-tonne busts on Sydney-bound yachts, including one when the state's restrictions were strictest.

Police allege organised crime networks have adapted to the new situation.

A yacht that was intercepted off the NSW coast that police will allege contained drugs. Picture: Police Media
A yacht that was intercepted off the NSW coast that police will allege contained drugs. Picture: Police Media

They claim yachts packed with drugs are travelling on direct routes from Mexico, China and Central America to Australia. In the past these may have stopped or swapped vessels near transit islands.

State Crime Command Assistant Commissioner Stuart Smith said police believe boats were spending weeks at sea sailing directly from source countries to deliver drugs to ­Sydney.

"We used to see large amounts of drugs coming into a sister state and then driven into NSW by road," Mr Smith said.

"But the border crossing became difficult for them. COVID has not allowed the ships to port hop to mask activity, they are coming straight to a rendezvous point to transfer."

Drugs police claim were hidden in a yacht. Picture: AAP/Joel Carrett
Drugs police claim were hidden in a yacht. Picture: AAP/Joel Carrett

Mr Smith said police would allege, in the recent cases involving the vessels Lafayette and Coralynne, both ships were going to use Newcastle and Sydney Harbour to offload rather than enter Australia using a less populated coastal port like normal.

"Border restrictions have prevented this activity, forcing them to use our main harbours."

He was referring to the yacht Lafayette, which was intercepted off the coast of Lake Macquarie in April, where police claim to have found one tonne of methamphetamine allegedly on board. Police will allege the vessel and the two men sailing it - British and New Zealand nationals - had sailed from Mexico.

In August, police intercepted another vessel, named Coralynne, 200 nautical miles off the coast of Newcastle. Police allege the boat, with three men on board, including two Sydneysiders, sailed from China and had almost one tonne of cocaine in the hull making it one of the biggest busts in NSW history.

 

Cash found as part of police investigations.
Cash found as part of police investigations.

Mr Smith said drug use had remained stable, especially in Sydney.

SCC has seized $844m worth of drugs this year, up from $516m last year. A rise in the price of methamphetamine - also known as ice - is reflected in the rise.

As drug smuggling routes have changed, so have money laundering methods. Speaking in general terms, Mr Smith said organised crime networks were offering "Uber-like" services to launder money. "COVID-19 hit organised crime in a different way and that meant revising some of their business models," Mr Smith said.

On Wednesday, $2.3m in cash was allegedly found inside a truck at Chinderah near the Queensland border. The 50-year-old truck driver from Victoria stopped at a heavy vehicle inspection station on the highway when Roads and Maritime Services inspectors found the cash in two duffel bags.

This month the Criminal Groups Squad claims it uncovered a criminal network using a light plane to move huge amounts of cash between Queensland and Sydney.

Police intelligence pointed to cash being divided into smaller amounts and distributed to Vietnamese crime networks, which laundered the money through gaming rooms in suburban pubs and clubs.

Originally published as How smugglers are defying COVID to bring drugs in



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