Eyes on syndicates importing contraband in parcel post and air cargo

Editor's note: Images of seized items are available to download.

The AFP High Volume Drug Crime Teams are targeting syndicates attempting to send millions of parcels of drugs through the post this festive and celebratory season.

Drug traffickers see Australia as a lucrative market because of the high demand for drugs and the high prices users will pay. The AFP, in partnership with Australian Border Force (AFP) officers at Australia's international border, is working tirelessly to prevent these drugs from reaching our communities because of the harm they cause.

Sadly there is one death in the Australian community for approximately every two kilograms of heroin consumed, one death for every 91 kilograms of methamphetamine ingested and one death for every 81 kilograms of cocaine consumed.

There are three High Volume Drug Teams across Australia.

The AFP-led High Volume Crime Taskforce Vanguard was established in NSW in July 2021, with about 30 investigators targeting drug importations identified in mail and air cargo and associated money laundering activities.

Taskforce Vanguard was purpose-built to combat the increasing trend of organised crime syndicates adapting their methods of importing illicit drugs to Australia during the COVID-19 pandemic, increasingly turning to a high volume of lightweight packages through air cargo and parcel post systems.

Since its inception, Taskforce Vanguard has resulted in more than 50 search warrants, 30 arrests, the seizures of more than $3.5 million in cash and hundreds of kilograms of illicit drugs, including methamphetamine, cocaine and heroin.

Illicit drugs seized were hidden in a range of items, including handbags, whey protein, exhaust pipes, a baby rocking chair, water filtration units and mailing tubes ostensibly containing blueprints.

Investigators have identified links between organised crime groups importing illicit drugs and subsequent money laundering activities to move the proceeds of the drug activities offshore.

During one investigation, the Taskforce believed that money, linked to outlaw motorcycle gangs and alleged to be the proceeds of crime, was moved to Dubai, Vietnam and China.

In Victoria, the High Volume Drug Crime Team, with Joint Taskforce Icarus members from Victoria Police, Australian Border Force and Home Affairs, have seized millions of dollars in drugs and border controlled precursor chemicals in 2021.

The Victorian High Volume Drug Crime Team has collected a total of 6962 individual seizures this year, concealed in anything from machinery and electrical goods to sculptures and statues.

The rate of parcels sent to Australia dramatically increases during the festive season.

Drug traffickers are sending smaller packages more often to try to escape law enforcement.

Each package comes with their own unique concealment, some more sophisticated than others. The intended destination could be anywhere, but the investigative techniques used by law enforcement to track these items is always evolving.

AFP High Volume Drug Team Detective Inspector Julian Bianco said transnational serious and organised criminal networks trying to flood Australia with drugs would face the full force of the AFP and partners.

"These high-volume imports are often used by transnational serious organised crime groups to generate funds for more or larger shipments. Unfortunately, the demand for illicit substances in Australia and the significant profits it generates for those involved, means these criminal groups have an incentive to keep flooding Australia with imports"

"Our work with our partners continues to put maximum pressure on these groups to disrupt activities that would otherwise result in serious harm to the Australian community."

AFP Detective Superintendent Craig Bellis said illicit drug importations and the movement of money go hand in hand, and the taskforce will continue to go after both.

In Queensland, Taskforce Sentry was established in February 2021. The taskforce has accepted 293 referrals, for 235 investigations, relating to the seizure of $29,211,870 worth of drugs or weapons bound for Queensland.

Taskforce Sentry comprises of members of the AFP, the Queensland Police Service's Crime and Intelligence Command, Australian Border Force and the Department of Home Affairs, collaborating to gather intelligence, implement investigative strategies and take action against syndicates smuggling and distributing illicit items including through postal and cargo streams.

AFP Detective Inspector Scott Curtis said as a result of tactical action by the Taskforce or through direct referral to regional investigators, there have been a total of 116 persons charged with 515 offences.

"This tactical action has resulted in the additional seizure of 10 firearms, approximately $3,022,012 in cash and drugs with a value of $10,765,983," Detective Inspector Curtis said.

So far this year, the AFP has charged 57 people in Western Australia with drug offences, including attempted importations stuffed inside a toy llama, dissolved into a tub of waterproofing paste, and welded into vehicle parts.

AFP Western Command Detective Superintendent Graeme Marshall said while most airmail imports might seem like relatively small amounts of illicit substances – anywhere from 5g to several kilograms – combined, the air imports intercepted across Australia equate to millions of individual street deals and could cause significant harm.

"In addition to deaths, illicit drug use causes a significant burden to the Australian economy, the estimated total social costs for every kilogram of illicit drugs classed as stimulants, such as methamphetamine, is $228,789.89 rising to $1.3 million for heroin – through crime, loss of productivity, emergency treatment and increased health care costs," he said.

"This is why the AFP is working closely with the Australian Border Force in WA and other partners locally and internationally to disrupt all levels of the drug trade.

"We have seen drug importers try to distance themselves from the crimes by having the packages delivered to parcel lockers, which they organise using false identification, pay couriers or even pay people a few thousand dollars to collect the drugs for them," Detective Superintendent Marshall said.

"However, we are alert to the different ways criminals try to conceal and move their drugs – and we are a step ahead.

"The AFP and the ABF share intelligence gathered through their investigations to help detect and intercept other attempted importations.

"People trying to import drugs should be warned – next time it may be police, not a delivery courier, knocking on your door."

Australian Border Force Superintendent Regional Investigations NSW, Brett Totten said the ABF intercepts hundreds of small-scale drug importations arriving in Australia through air cargo and parcel post systems each week

"Collectively, the volume of these attempted importations is sizeable. So far this year the ABF has seized more than 11 tonnes of drugs arriving in Australia by air," Supt. Totten said.

"These drugs cause significant harm and destroy lives if they reach our communities. We continue to collaborate and work closely with our law enforcement partners, to disrupt these criminal activities and keep our communities safe."

It comes as the AFP revealed on 6 December, 2021, that it was testing international mail for illicit drugs and guns in real time to help identify overseas drug traffickers.

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