Australia has made what’s believed to be the country’s biggest ever drug bust: 2.4 tonnes of cocaine, equivalent to half of Australia’s estimated annual consumption.
A joint U.S. and Australian operation intercepted the cocaine shipment—with a street value of about 1 billion Australian dollars ($677 million)—off the coast of Ecuador in November, police in Western Australia said on Saturday.
But the haul was just part of an elaborate plan that led to the arrest of 12 people with alleged links to a Mexican drug cartel.
Authorities withheld news of the seizure and left the Australian arm of a crime syndicate expecting a shipment in late December, as if it was business as usual.
Police substituted the cocaine with a fake substance, using identical packaging, and dropped the bait 40 nautical miles west of Perth, the capital of Western Australia. Unaware they were being watched by drones and helicopters, members of the syndicate allegedly tried to retrieve the cargo using two boats.
One of those boats, named Cool Runnings, had steering issues and washed up on the beach about 70 kilometres north of Perth on December 30. Police arrested three people onboard with about 1.2 tonnes of the inert substance—half the total shipment.
A short while later, the crew from the other boat, named Catalina, allegedly tracked down Cool Runnings and towed it out to sea so they could transfer the “drugs” before the vessel sank.
In the coming weeks, authorities arrested a further nine people in connection with the shipment. While all of the detainees are from Australia, police allege the syndicate has links to a Mexican drug cartel.
“This was a complex operation involving dozens of specialist officers and detectives resulting in the seizure of an estimate[d] $1 billion worth of cocaine, and disrupting criminal networks,” Western Australian Police Commissioner Col Blanch said in a statement emailed to VICE World News. He further noted that Australian authorities were continuing the investigation with offshore partners to “identify and prosecute those responsible for organising this shipment.”
Australia has one of the world’s highest paying markets for cocaine, with the drug retailing for as much as $350 per gram and Australians considered some of its biggest per capita consumers in the world—despite the country also having the lowest purity of a major market.
This makes it a lucrative target for transnational crime syndicates and cartels. New Zealand, another of the world’s highest paying markets, recently made its largest ever drug bust when authorities there seized more than three tonnes of cocaine wrapped into 81 bales and stashed at a floating transit point in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
Police told reporters that that seizure represented a year’s cocaine consumption for Australia and three decades worth for New Zealand.
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