One of Australia’s highly wanted fugitives – an alleged drug smuggler accused of planning to import $270 million of cocaine into the country from Ecuador – was found hiding in the back of a Mercedes inside a shipping container on the back of a truck this morning, after over two weeks on the run.
Authorities have been searching for Mostafa Baluch, 33, since the night of October 25, after he allegedly cut a tracking device off his ankle and disappeared from his home on Sydney's northern beaches. Baluch was on bail over charges that he attempted to import 900 kilograms of cocaine into New South Wales – a shipment that was seized from a vessel travelling off the coast of Ecuador in April. Days after that bail – which was granted despite opposition from police – he vanished.
What followed was an expensive manhunt involving federal and international police that spanned 16 days.
Police believed that after absconding from his home in Bayview, Baluch was taken to northern Sydney in a black Range Rover before being transferred into another vehicle – a dark blue BMW, either an X3 or X5. They further suspected that the latter vehicle may have travelled to a pair of south-west Sydney homes thought to be connected to Baluch – one in Potts Hill and one in Yagoona.
Last Thursday, investigators raided the two properties and uncovered more than $250,000 cash, about 200 grams of cocaine, 485 grams of an unknown substance, multiple mobile phones and an electronic money counter. Baluch was nowhere to be found.
“We unfortunately didn’t find him but we are pretty sure we are not far away,” NSW Police Detective Superintendent Rob Critchlow, organised crime squad commander, said at the time. Days earlier, Critchlow had flagged that Baluch was “very, very focused on leaving the jurisdiction and I can tell you for certain that he’s seeking assistance from those who will fly him out of NSW and out of the country.”
Eventually, officers received a tip-off that Baluch could be hiding inside a vehicle trying to cross the border into Queensland, and started checking trucks passing through the NSW border town of Tweed Heads. At about 1AM on Wednesday, they pulled over a truck with a shipping container on its back after noticing that the load wasn’t properly secured. Officers claim that when they knocked on the container, Baluch – holed up inside – knocked back.
Critchlow said the fugitive, who was hiding in a grey Mercedes 4WD stored inside the container, was “a bit shocked” that he’d been found. He was arrested, remains in custody and is expected to face court later today. The state has also seized his Bayview home, which was put forward as bail surety and is reportedly valued at $4 million.
Police have celebrated the bust as “one of the great days of NSW Police.” But NSW Police Assistant Commissioner Stuart Smith also lamented the “extraordinary” amount of money that was spent on the investigation to track down Baluch.
“I'd have nightmares if I even started to think about it,” he said.
Police suspect that Baluch, whose initial arrest followed an investigation assisted by the United States Drug Enforcement Administration into an organised crime syndicate operating across Australia to North and South America, may be just one part of a bigger operation. Within the past few weeks, while searching for his whereabouts, investigators claim to have identified further criminal activities by a wider syndicate.
“It’s one of these things where the more you look, the more you find,” said Critchlow. Following Baluch’s arrest on Thursday, he added: “Mr Baluch has opened opportunities we didn’t have before. It’s given us great potential to really dissolve a major trafficking syndicate.”
Baluch allegedly used AN0M — an encrypted messaging app setup by the FBI to surreptitiously monitor criminal activity — to message drug dealers based in Thailand, Cambodia, Montenegro, Greece and the Netherlands, according to GPS coordinates on their texts. At one point he allegedly boasted of having access to $30 million in personal funds and taking control of the local Australian cocaine market.
He was charged in June with conspiracy to import a commercial quantity of a border-controlled drug, supplying a controlled drug and knowingly dealing with the proceeds of crime and other drug offences.
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