Australians are the highest per capita users of cocaine in the world. And the cocaine price here is among the highest in the world. Worlds away from its source, the Australian market provides a lucrative destination – and everybody’s on it.
The world of cocaine trafficking – cartels, syndicates, violence, addiction, money and the bloodshed that now stains most parts of Latin America – feels a long way from dinner plates and credit cards at some random kick-ons. But it’s right here.
Cocaine Nation, journalist Mahmood Fazal’s recent documentary for ABC’s Four Corners, investigates the current scope of Australia’s cocaine trade.
Fazal spoke with individuals from across the hierarchy – the street pusher who cuts their product with hairsprayed Panadol tamped down with a bottle of Chanel Bleu to mimic coke’s clumps; a former airport employee-slash-outlaw motorcycle club member, acting as a “door” between foreign cartels and our borders; the high rollers at the very top.
An award winning journalist from Melbourne, Fazal has spent over five years in the crime reporting space, accessing the coteries and communities skirting the law and civil society, from Sydney’s gang wars to the Yakuza.
Drug reporting is often cliched, much like the stereotypes it purports. Overtly sensationalised, instilled with a call-to-action: people are dealing and doing drugs in your backyard. But Cocaine Nation is an objective view of the scene in Australia – a blatant look at the many individuals involved in it, and their stories.
The admissions from Fazal’s sources make you wonder: Where on earth did he find these people, and how did he convince them to talk so forthrightly, to an audience who, as a majority, fear and loathe them?
It wasn’t hard, Fazal told VICE, when we caught up over Zoom this week to discuss the process behind it all.
“I've worked in a space for over five years as a crime reporter and I grew up in neighbourhoods where crime was rampant,” he said.
“Everybody in our immediate circles was involved in some sort of hustle, whether they were dealing meth or pills at nightclubs or bagging coke, or doing stand-overs or whatever, everybody had some hustle that they were doing to make ends meet. And it was a survival thing.”
VICE: Why did you choose to cover the cocaine trade, specifically, in Australia at the moment?
Mahmood Fazal: The subject of cocaine interests me because it's a drug that subverts the public imagination’s stereotype of the drug user, and drugs in general.
Like, we heard from a professor who took cocaine while doing her taxes… Everyone was kind of middle class, or quite affluent, the people that were regular users of cocaine. And we spoke to senior cocaine traffickers who push coke to surgeons, judges, professional athletes, and others. Basically everybody in the culture that we've been taught to aspire to were all using this drug.
And they're the very ones fuelling this economy, which has led to Australians being the highest users per capita in the world, which is pretty staggering, seeing as we pay the most.
It's interesting, because you watch investigations on the drug trade, and especially with coke, there’s a fascinating insight into this trade, culture, community. But to what end? People aren't going to stop using cocaine, and the people that are using it… It's everyone in society. What do you see as the primary function of this type of reporting?
I was very careful. My producer really was hammering home that, like, “we need to open up the conversation about what to do with drugs”. I think my role as a crime reporter is a little bit old school, I like to just be objective and invisible in the agenda of the programme.
I don't really want to tell people how to feel, I’m just trying my best to avoid this idea of a war on drugs. Even doing so many interviews yesterday, people are like, so why do you think people take drugs? It's not a question for me. I don’t care. Everyone's on their own journey.
The only thing that I hope people do more of after watching this is just educate themselves a little bit, learn a bit of safe drug taking practices and stuff because there are some fucked up drug dealers out there who do cut their cocaine with fentanyl and speed and shit. And if you're not prepared for that, it can be really overwhelming, and cause delusions and be unsafe. I think that's the only message, but I wouldn't hammer that message down on people.
The doco struck me as something very different to what you'd expect from a Four Corners episode on the drug trade. It was quite empathetic, incredibly objective. Was that forefront of mind? Or is that just the way you are as a reporter?
My problem with a lot of journalists is they don't know the subject of their stories all that well. And when they report on subjects it comes across as kind of cartoonish, or a cookie cutter rendition of what the story is. And anybody who is aware of drug use and drug users knows that it's a really diverse spectrum of people who choose to deal drugs. It's not one colour, shape or creed. I'm always pushing the boundaries, and thinking very hard about who I want to include in telling the story, and who is best positioned to represent the accurate landscape of this market.
So that's why we had a gay Lebanese woman who was a dealer, we had a five time Archibald Prize finalist and artist who was a dealer. And then at the upper end, we did have the stereotypes – outlaw motorcycle clubs and cartels. I think it's just more interesting and more real to present stories in that way, especially if you’ve lived it. And everybody who has experienced these sorts of scenes knows it’s not the cliche shit you see in the movies.
With your sources, as a crime reporter, you're building up getting that connection and rapport, but were you shocked or surprised at how forthcoming they were on national television?
I wasn't because I’ve known about these guys, and I've worked with these guys, for a long time. But I think it's always worth highlighting the reality that these guys are taking massive risks to talk to us. Like the guy at the end who rocked up with a quarter key of cocaine. If he’d gotten pulled over on the way there, he would have got five to ten years’ jail. And then if they figured out who he was, and what he'd said in the interview, he would be up for a raft of conspiracy charges that would put him in prison for a very long time. So it's incredibly brave for them to talk to us. I'm always a little bit surprised at how much… maybe… faith they put in me, but… I think it's hard work. I've gained their trust over many years, I hope.
Other than that trust, do you know why they would be willing to chat? Do they feel like they want their story to be told? They care about the public interest?
I think all criminals have a sense that the story of crime in this country is told from one perspective, and that's the police and the court. It's very rarely heard from the other side.
And so what happens is, the idea of the criminal becomes this very cartoonish caricature of a person that we can point a finger on and stick in jail. And really, they're quite complex people, who come from disadvantage, and want to tell their side of the story. They feel like what we’re being fed about the criminal archetype is something that's misunderstood, so they often like to correct it with shade and nuance. Which is what our job is, to find the detail.
From an ethical perspective, how big was the challenge of protecting your sources’ safety?
It was incredibly, incredibly difficult to source protect on this story. It was by far the most challenging part of telling the story because there's a lot of legal risks in doing this. Section 316 of the Crimes Act, New South Wales, compels anyone who witnesses a serious indictable offence to report it to the police, otherwise you can be charged and put in prison.
So we had to make conscious decisions not to engage people who might show us things or put us in situations where we might witness a serious, indictable offence that would compel us to report them, not that we would report on them anyway, because we're journalists and we believe in source protection. But there's no defence for journalists arguing source protection under this act, so you're basically fucked if you witness and don’t report it to the police. Which sucks as a journalist, because it's our job, and we want to hear that other side of the story.
Did that weigh on your mind as you were making it?
Not really. I just knew that even if I was put in that situation I wouldn't be reporting to the police.
Was there anything you came across during your reporting that really shocked you?
The interview with the outlaw motorcycle club member was pretty shocking, because he worked at the airport as a smuggler for a Mexican cartel. He highlighted and revealed that Latin American cartels are operating here. They have accounts here, they have hitmen and foot soldiers here, who basically monitor the safe passage of these drugs in every port in every city. I thought that was really shocking, because my impression was that cartels often just operate at the highest levels, and they're kind of invisible post the deal being made internationally. It was interesting to see how they're kind of encroaching upon the market, on the ground. It's most evident in places like Brisbane, surprisingly, and New South Wales, not so much in Victoria.
Do you think that this investigation revealed different ways that the cocaine trade has changed over like the past… I don't know, Decade? I don't have a timeframe here.
We probably should have highlighted how they've developed and changed. So, one of the big changes is that a few years ago, the Australian Federal Police and the FBI developed this app called An0m, which was basically a sting operation. And they managed to get really high level organised crime figures to subscribe to that app and use it as their primary means to communicate with each other.
And so they were basically getting live feeds of these discussions between senior cartel members about the imports. After they all got busted, and that syndicate was kind of broken apart, there was a vacuum and it created a whole raft of smaller fractured syndicates, who started working together, and they were way harder to monitor and they still had connections overseas with quite senior organised crime figures.
That was the main reveal over the past decade, is that it's gone from quite a centralised power to a decentralised smaller factions, people from all walks of life. We heard of hippies in Fitzroy who used to import heaps of acid and stuff and have now started importing cocaine, and a lot of different walks of life tapping into the cocaine market, because they were smuggling other things in, like tobacco.
So the cops got technological advancements to help them catch the guys, what about on the other side, have traffickers been aided by new technology?
I think the police are always one step behind in terms of tech. Even that app that they developed, it was mimicked off technology that organised crime was already using.
They're always ahead in terms of the most sophisticated technology, and it's because they have endless pockets. The advent of encrypted technology helped organised crime figures run their operations from overseas, so you'd find a lot of the biggest players would work out of Dubai or Turkey and the Middle East. And as that happened, they actually became closer with international syndicates, like mafia cartels, triads, and those guys had the most sophisticated and best technology at all times. The police's job is essentially to react and respond and adapt to the environment that's always ahead of them.
Was there anything you weren’t able to put in the documentary that you wish you could’ve?
We filmed this entire opening sequence of a house party. It was a mother's club from an upmarket Melbourne private school, who’d get together for wines and lines on the weekend. So this mum’s club, but it got cut out. It was really evocative of the kind of juxtaposition: how we feel about the stigma and who the people are using it, and what the reality is on the ground.
Why did it get cut out?
We needed to cut five minutes. I can’t stop thinking about it.
Mahmood Fazal was a journalist at VICE Australia from 2017 - 2020.
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