UPDATED: Two arrested after drug-filled yacht intercepted off coast near Lake Macquarie

A yacht suspected to be carrying hundreds of kilograms of methamphetamine has been intercepted off the NSW coast near Lake Macquarie, leading to two arrests.

The arrests follow a multi-agency investigation known as Operation ROMANI, comprising the Australian Federal Police (AFP), New South Wales Police Force (NSWPF) and Australian Border Force (ABF), collaborating with agencies from the United Kingdom and New Caledonia.

On Thursday, 16 April 2020, New Caledonian authorities – French Customs and French National Police in New Caledonia – advised the AFP’s International Command and the ABF about the arrival of a vessel of interest into Pacific waters the previous day.

It will be alleged the vessel had been in waters near Norfolk Island and then had travelled to New Caledonia. The crew declared to New Caledonian authorities they had travelled from Mexico.

As a result of this information, the Australian investigative team identified a second vessel of interest – a yacht known as the La Fayette. Police allege this yacht had been loaded with border controlled drugs in waters around Norfolk Island.

On Friday, 17 April 2020, the La Fayette was located by ABF’s Marine Border Command on the East Coast of Australia heading south. The vessel’s movements continued to be tracked as the joint Australian investigative team prepared for an on water interception.

About 4am yesterday (Saturday, 18 April 2020), NSWPF Marine Area Command vessel NEMESIS intercepted the La Fayette about 50 nautical miles east of Lake Macquarie, NSW.

The two crew members – a 33-year-old New Zealand national and a 35-year-old man holding dual UK/South African citizenship – were arrested on board.

The yacht was towed by the NEMESIS to the NSWPF Marine Area Command in Balmain on Saturday afternoon.

It will be alleged investigators located blocks wrapped in plastic on board the vessel.  Specialist forensic officers are continuing to deconstruct the boat and examine the contents, which is believed to contain methamphetamine. Further forensic testing will be undertaken to determine the exact weight and purity of the seized substances.

The men were taken to Surry Hills Police Station and charged with import a commercial quantity of border controlled drugs and are due to appear before Parramatta Bail Court this morning via video link.

The maximum penalty for this offence is life imprisonment.

AFP Assistant Commissioner Eastern Command Justine Gough said even as world borders are physically closing, police remain alert for attempts to infiltrate transnational borders to bring illicit drugs to Australian markets.

“Organised crime groups will stop at nothing – not even a global pandemic - to try and flood our communities with drugs for greed and profit,” Assistant Commissioner Gough said.

“Our cross-border collaboration remains strong in these times, and through our relationships worldwide, we will not stop in our efforts to protect our communities from the destruction of illicit drugs.”

NSWPF State Crime Commander, Assistant Commissioner Stuart Smith, said significant NSW Police Force resources have been utilised to aggressively target and intercept the yacht before the drugs could make it to the streets of NSW.

“The expertise of the Marine Area Command, assisted by the Maritime Border Command, has enabled police to execute a tactical navigation plan and successfully board the yacht and arrest two men,” Assistant Commissioner Smith said.

“In light of the restrictions and guidelines under the Public Health Act, we have taken numerous additional precautions in accordance with COVID-19 protocol and as a result the two offenders and all officers on the vessel were decontaminated and tested for the virus.

“With every seizure we make, a syndicate is taken down and it’s evident this criminal network has gone to extreme measures to traffic drugs into NSW with current international travel restrictions.

“Since the start of this year the Organised Crime Squad, with the assistance of our law enforcement partners, has seized hundreds of kilos of prohibited drugs and disrupted multiple criminal networks and their activities.”

ABF Acting Regional Commander for NSW Garry Low said this operation shows the importance of cooperation and shared intelligence across the South Pacific.

“The ABF continues to work closely with our law enforcement partners, here and abroad, to catch and prosecute criminals, no matter where in the supply chain they sit,” Acting Commander Low said.

“Criminal syndicates should know, that not only will we find your drugs concealments when they reach our sea ports and airports, but we’re also watching your movements before you reach Australia. The ABF has eyes on our oceans, not just on our land borders.”

This investigations has been an ongoing operation with the UK’s National Crime Agency and its office in Canberra, looking into British Organised Crime groups targeting Australia.

Joint investigations are continuing with agencies in Australia and offshore, and further arrests have not been ruled out.

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*** EDITOR’S NOTE- UPDATE 4PM SUNDAY 19 APRIL– ONE TONNE SEIZURE**

A total of 1,009 blocks, each approximately one kilogram, have now been unloaded from the vessel by specialist forensics officers.

One tonne of methylamphetamine has a potential estimated street value of up to $750 million.

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