A light aircraft loaded with drugs and bound for Australia crashed while trying to take off from Papua New Guinea last week—with authorities suggesting that the half-ton of cocaine on board may have prevented the twin-engine plane from gaining altitude.
The Cessna 402C was discovered at the end of what appeared to be a makeshift runway in Papa Lea Lea, just outside Port Moresby, on Sunday July 26. It’s understood the aircraft had taken off from Mareeba in Far North Queensland a day earlier, flying at an altitude of less than 1,000 metres to avoid radar detection, before landing at the illegal airfield.
Hours before taking off again, at some point between 1PM and 2.30PM local time, the plane was loaded with more than $80 million AUD worth of cocaine. But by the time local authorities discovered the downed aircraft on Sunday afternoon, it was empty. No pilot, no passengers, no drugs.
“We believe the PNG members of this criminal group assisted the pilot and retrieved the drugs from the plane,” said PNG police commissioner, David Manning. “Police are in possession of information related to the suspected PNG members of the group who have been involved in this criminal activity, including descriptions, unique features and tattoos.”
It wasn’t until late Friday night that local authorities, working with the Australian Federal Police (AFP), tracked down 28 bags of what is thought to be cocaine. Weighing in at more than 500 kilograms, the seizure marks the biggest drug bust in PNG’s history and one of the biggest cocaine busts the AFP has ever made.
Australian police said they "cannot rule out that the weight of the cocaine had an impact on the plane's ability to take off".
The attempted smuggling operation has been traced to a Melbourne-based organised crime syndicate with links to the Italian mafia group Ndrangheta, who operate out of Calabria. Five people were arrested in Australia—three in Queensland and two in Victoria—shortly after the plane left Mareeba.
Four were charged with conspiring to import commercial quantities of border-controlled drugs, among other things, while the fifth—a 31-year-old man from Victoria—is believed to have been tasked with transporting the drugs via truck once they landed in Australia. The pilot of the Cessna, who handed himself in shortly after the crash, was charged in PNG with illegal entry into the country, and is expected to face additional charges relating to the transportation of illegal drugs.
AFP Deputy Commissioner Ian McCartney said the arrests were the result of a two-year investigation into the syndicate. But certain mysterious details of the operation are still up in the air. For one, the aircraft used in the operation was registered to a PNG company, Ravenpol No 69 Ltd, in January of this year—five months after that company’s sole director and shareholder, Geoffrey Bull Paul, was stabbed to death in Port Moresby.
PNG Prime Minister James Marape has ordered Australian and PNG police to further investigate the suspicious flight, voicing outrage at the fact that PNG has become a transit point for international criminal syndicates and drug traffickers.
“It concerns me that an unmarked small craft flew into PNG airspace and landed in an important resource project area of our country,” he said. “We are not a banana republic where anyone can pick up a plane and just come into PNG unannounced… [and] we will have no place for those who think they could peddle drugs in this country.”
Police Commissioner Manning echoed the Prime Minister’s concerns.
“What has posed serious concern for us now is that Papua New Guinea—from the size of this seizure—it is now confirmed that we are a transit point for such drugs," he said.
The South Pacific has become one of the world’s most lucrative drug highways in recent years, and this isn’t the first time PNG authorities have identified a major shipment in the area. In 2018 police intercepted a modified trawler, crewed by drug-smuggling pirates, that was carrying more than $50 million AUD worth of cocaine through the Vitiaz Strait.
In that case, officers were forced to abandon the vessel after discovering it had been booby-trapped, surrendering it and its cargo to the mercy of the ocean. The unmanned coke boat eventually ran aground on the shore of a volcanic islet near the Siassi Islands—with more than 300 kilograms of cocaine still on board. There are no reports to indicate that the drug-laden shipwreck was ever retrieved.