Australia’s Most Wanted Crime Bosses May Have Infiltrated Its Biggest Airline to Traffic Drugs

The so-called “Aussie Cartel” is an alliance forged by the “baddest of the bad.”
June 7, 2021, 7:46am
cocaine luggage
Authorities believe the so-called 'Aussie Cartel' has recruited border insiders to help get drugs into Australia. AFP photo / Australian Federal Police

A drug cartel composed of some of Australia’s most wanted crime bosses is colluding with corrupt government officials to smuggle an estimated $1.5 billion AUD ($1.16 billion USD) worth of drugs across the nation’s borders per year, according to the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC).

The nine men involved in the criminal syndicate, which the agency has dubbed the “Aussie Cartel,” are “the baddest of the bad”, according to the commission’s chief executive Michael Phelan, who told The Age that the group was responsible for “about one-third of the drug importations into our country.”

Advertisement

Authorities believe the Aussie Cartel has infiltrated Australia’s largest airline, Qantas, and recruited up to 150 people inside the company – from baggage handlers through to mid-level managers – to help them funnel huge quantities of drugs into the country. A classified federal law enforcement intelligence operation, code-named Project Brunello, declared that a “significant” number of Qantas staff are linked to criminal activities, including a Comanchero motorcycle gang affiliate working in Sydney airport operations who has links to the cartel.

Project Brunello found that almost 60 Qantas staff were linked to “serious drug offences” or “organised crime groups,” and that “trusted insiders” were able to “cause significant harm” to the Australian community.

The men hail mostly from Australian outlaw motorcycle gangs and Middle Eastern crime groups, and have been designated by ACIC as Australian priority organisation targets: a classification assigned to those who are considered to have the most significant impact on the nation's organised crime environment.

“They share supply routes, they share logistic supply chains. They share among themselves the doors or the way into Australia,” Phelan said. “They share any corrupt networks they may have here to swap information to each other.”

Advertisement

The limited Australian Priority Organisation Target list typically includes money launderers and drug traffickers. In this case it features a roster of major players in Australia’s criminal underworld from various corners of Asia, Europe and the Middle East.

While Phelan declined to identify the members of the cartel, state and federal policing agency sources told The Age that the group included at least one member of the Hells Angels who is currently living between Greece and the United Arab Emirates; a Triad-linked individual based in Hong Kong; and even a Sydney logistics, port and transportation expert.

The cartel’s founding member and Australia’s most wanted priority target is Hakan Ayik, who currently lives in Istanbul, Turkey, according to The Age. But the group's influence also extends beyond this ring of notorious figures.

Phelan would not confirm whether Qantas had in fact been infiltrated, but noted that ACIC “works very closely with Qantas” and that several private sector companies were vulnerable.

Qantas Group chief security officer Luke Bramah told The Age that “given we follow all of the government’s vetting procedures, we find these claims disturbing. We have not been advised of any current investigations of Qantas Group employees involved in organised crime. If concerns are raised regarding any of our employees, we will actively support their investigation and take appropriate action.”

Official sources also confirmed that at least two members of the cartel are believed to have connections with government insiders both in Australia and overseas, according to The Age.

In a statement to VICE World News, the Australia’s Department of Home Affairs did not confirm nor deny the reports, saying that “the Australian Government does not comment on media speculation regarding intelligence reports.” It also said that “The Aviation Security Identification Card (ASIC) scheme is an important part of securing the sector … [and] has been very effective in protecting Australian airports from terrorism, however, the scheme does not directly target the threat posed by serious criminals in the secure areas of our airports.”

The statement acknowledged however that “illicit drugs continue to be a highly attractive commodity for transnational and serious organised crime (TSOC) groups due to the high profitability,” and that TSOC “is a national security threat.” 

“It threatens the safety, security and trust of citizens and our Australian way of life – undermining our sovereignty, democracy and economy,” it added. “The cost to the economy is estimated at over $47 billion, but the broader social impacts are immeasurable … [It] feeds corruption at every level which corrodes trust in our critical institutions, including government.”

Update: This article has been updated to reflect new information in a statement from the Australian Department of Home Affairs.

Follow Gavin on Twitter