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a stack of packets of gel bra inserts that contain meth

Taskforce Blaze cooperation surges ahead

An historic partnership with China's National Narcotics Control Commission is blazing a new trail for law enforcement in the two countries.

By Graham McBean

It was probably the biggest bust of bra inserts in history. But it was the 190 litres of methamphetamine secreted into the gel inserts destined for the Australian market that attracted law enforcement attention.

Australian Border Force (ABF) officers examined the consignment of 86 boxes from Hong Kong on December 26, 2015, at the NSW Container Examination Facility and discovered the suspect bras.

The NSW Joint Organised Crime Group (JOCG) had already established Operation Ovcharka on November 8 to investigate potential drug importation and supply from Asia, destined for the Australian market.

Between 23 and 30 December, 2015, the JOCG executed four search warrants at storage facilities in Sydney and seized about 530 litres of liquid methamphetamine and 2kg of crystallised methamphetamine concealed in art supplies.

A controlled delivery of the bra inserts on January 14 in 2016 to a storage facility resulted in the arrest of a 33-year-old Hong Kong national.

But it was on January 25 that the JOCG uncovered evidence of drug manufacturing at two Sydney residences in Hurstville and Campsie, alleged to be linked to the liquid methamphetamine seized in the art supplies.

A 59-year-old male Chinese national was arrested at Hurstville. Further Hong Kong citizens, a 37-year-old male and a 52-year-old female, were arrested at Campsie.

a box with a gel bra insert next to a ruler
The gel bra inserts seized during Operation Ovcharka were the first major success of Taskforce Blaze.
18 boxes that contained the bra inserts
Boxes of bras seized during Operation Ovcharka.

The combined yield of 720 litres of methamphetamine with an estimated potential street value of more than $1 billion was one of the biggest drug operations in Australia.

But Operation Ovcharka was equally significant as the first major success of the then newly signed joint agency agreement between the AFP and China's National Narcotics Control Commission (NNCC) to launch Taskforce Blaze.


The Taskforce Blaze agreement was signed on November 2, 2015, by AFP Deputy Commissioner Capability Ramzi Jabbour and NNCC Director General Hu Minglang. It was the first time China had agreed to participate in a law enforcement taskforce with an international partner.

two men shaking hands
Director General of China's National Narcotics Control Commission Hu Minglang and AFP Deputy Commissioner Capability Ramzi Jabbour seal the deal for the historic Taskforce Blaze.

Taskforce Blaze is based in Guangzhou and focuses on enhanced intelligence cooperation to disrupt the activity of crime syndicates exporting methamphetamine from China to Australia.

The intelligence gathered by both agencies is force multiplied when it is collated and shared between agencies. A joint response can then be coordinated.

Deputy Commissioner Jabbour said the AFP's strategy was to focus on drug syndicates targeting Australia. Indeed, Taskforce Blaze came at the end of a year that had seen 1024 kilograms of Chinese-produced methamphetamine seized in 2015.

"We can't do this without the help of our international partners," Deputy Commissioner Jabbour said. "This taskforce will build upon the existing intelligence sharing arrangements to strengthen the cooperation and abilities of law enforcement in the region.

"Methamphetamine is a serious threat to the Australian community, and the AFP is focused on continuing to work closely with domestic and international partners to stop this drug making its way into our community."

The success of Taskforce Blaze was further enhanced on July 5, 2016, when AFP Commissioner Andrew Colvin and Director General Hu Minglang signed Phase 2 of the agreement in Canberra to expand investigations by both agencies.

two men sitting next to each other at a desk signing documents
AFP Commissioner Andrew Colvin and Director General of China's National Narcotics Control Commission Hu Minglang sign Phase 2 of Taskforce Blaze in Canberra.

Phase 3 has now been signed and extends Taskforce Blaze to January 2018 with a focus on multinational investigations, financial investigations and combating significant drug smuggling activities by sea.

The new phase opens up opportunities to broader models of cooperation and extension into surrounding provinces and opportunity for multi-lateral engagement on a case-by-case basis through collaboration with neighbouring countries with shared priorities and challenges.


The joint successes of Taskforce Blaze continue with 13 tonnes of narcotics and precursor materials seized. Australia and China have cooperated on 68 operations.

Some of the operations are spectacular for the significant drug hauls that were seized. Some are spectacular because the narrative reads like a crime novel. Such as Operation Serpia.

inside the metal stem of a stool containing a silver package containing crystal meth
Above and below: 159 kilograms of crystal methamphetamine were concealed in bar stools and soup packets during Operation Serpia.
a box of packets of soup that contained crystal meth

ABF officers targeted three sea freight containers that arrived from China and were inspected over two days from January 6-7, 2016.

The containers held a number of bar stools and boxes of soup packets. ABF officers deconstructed the bar stools and found a total of 147 kilograms of crystal methamphetamine concealed within the seat-backs.

A further 323 kilograms of ephedrine was found concealed in the soup mix packets.

The AFP began Operation Serpia with the ABF and the ongoing cooperation of the Chinese National Narcotics Control Commission.

Resolution of Operation Serpia on January 21, 2016, resulted in the arrest of four people, including a man alleged to be a crucial component of an Australian criminal syndicate and an internationally linked group.

Operation Kragle was even more spectacular with a naval interception at sea. The joint operation began in early November 2016 following intelligence generated by Taskforce Blaze concerning a fishing vessel sailing for Australia.

The suspect vessel was identified off the NSW coast and monitored by the ABF with the support of its Maritime Border Command (MBC), a multi-agency task force responsible for leading Australia's civil maritime security operations.

In the early hours of November 11, a small tender launched from the mother vessel with three men onboard. The AFP monitored the tender's arrival with the assistance of the NSW Police Force Marine Area Command.

The tender landed on Palm Beach on Sydney's northern beaches, where it was met by another two male persons and a transfer of three barrels containing liquid methamphetamine and 2.5kgs of MDMA occurred.

All five men were arrested and a search warrant was executed. The total volume of the barrels was about 64 litres, with an estimated street value of $40 million.

two men moving a barrel that contains liquid meth
AFP members remove barrels containing 64 litres of liquid methamphetamine during Operation Kragle.

Attention then turned to the mother ship. On the morning of November 13, HMAS Newcastle (operating under the control of the MBC) intercepted the vessel off the coast of Hervey Bay, Queensland.

The three-member crew was detained and transferred to HMAS Newcastle. All three were conveyed to Sydney and were arrested by the AFP and a search warrant executed on the vessel.

a boat in the open ocean
The mother ship, above, was intercepted off Hervey Bay, Queensland, by HMAS Newcastle under command of Maritime Border Control.


The incredible success of Taskforce Blaze has provided the impetus to expand the methodology of bilateral agreements with other countries in the region.

To this end, the AFP signed a further three joint agreements with Thailand, Cambodia and Myanmar in mid-2016.

AFP-China support through Taskforce Blaze was fundamental in progressing the new law enforcement arrangements.

AFP Commissioner Andrew Colvin signed the first Memorandum of Understand (MoU) on May 30, 2016, at the Thai Office of the Narcotics Control Board (ONCB).

Thai Minister for Justice General Paiboon Koomchaya and Australian Ambassador to Thailand Paul Robilliard witnessed the signing by Commissioner Colvin and ONCB Secretary General Narong Rattananugul.

four men standing next to each other behind a table
AFP Commissioner Andrew Colvin, Australian Ambassador to Thailand Paul Robilliard, Thai Minister for Justice General Paiboon Koomchaya and Secretary General Narong Rattanugul sign Taskforce Storm.

Commissioner Colvin next formalised the AFP's ongoing cooperation with Cambodian authorities in the fight against illicit drugs and transnational organised crime, with the establishment of Strikeforce Dragon on 30 May, 2016.

Strikeforce Dragon targets narcotics trafficking and money laundering between Cambodia and Australia, with the AFP working with the Cambodian National Police and Cambodian General Department of Immigration.

Commissioner Colvin signed a MoU with the Cambodian National Police on combating transnational crime.

"The Cambodian agreements demonstrate the continuing efforts of the AFP to work closely with our partners to tackle issues of common concern, and adds to last year's Taskforce Blaze agreement with Chinese authorities and yesterday's Taskforce Storm announcement in Thailand," Commissioner Colvin said.

The establishment of Strikeforce Dragon also forms part of the AFP's commitment to enhance international cooperation with partner countries to disrupt the supply of methamphetamine and other drugs.

two men sitting next to each other singing documents, with 8 men standing behind observing them
AFP Commissioner Andrew Colvin and Cambodia National Police Chief General Neth Savoeum sign the memorandum of understanding for Strikeforce Dragon.

"Australia already enjoys a close law enforcement relationship with its Cambodian counterparts to protect our respective communities and to bring to justice those that seek to profit from transnational crime," said Commissioner Colvin.

"I am confident that these agreements are another step in a stronger working relationship with our Cambodian colleagues to jointly address these shared issues."

Commissioner Colvin signed a further MoU with Myanmar in June 13 last year with Chief of Myanmar Police Force (MPF) Major General Zaw Win.

The MoU outlines each agency's commitment to working together to combat transnational crime, boost police cooperation and share intelligence.

Commissioner Colvin said the AFP already worked closely with the MPF and noted the collaboration had resulted in a host of successful operational outcomes.