THE AUSTRALIAN Federal Police have charged five Sydney men for their roles in importing about 100 kilograms of cocaine in an air-freight container in the cargo hold of a passenger plane that arrived from South Africa.

The five men all appeared in Parramatta Local Court on Sunday 8 October and were remanded in custody to reappear on 30 November 2023.

Image: AFP

The facilitator

Police allege a Padstow man, 42, to have been the primary Australian facilitator of the operation. Police say he liaised with organised figures overseas to source the cocaine, have it placed on an aircraft and then arranged for its onward distribution in Australia.

A Hillsdale man, 62, allegedly co-ordinated the activities of two men working at the airport to facilitate the removal of the cocaine from the aircraft and deliver it to an associate of the Padstow man.

Air-freight insiders

Police allege a Mascot man, 55, and Coogee man, 61, used their employment and access to freight handling operations at Sydney’s international airport to facilitate the removal of five large bags containing the cocaine from a container in the cargo hold of an aircraft recently arrived from South Africa, and out of the secure airside area on Saturday 7 October.

“These two trusted insiders then allegedly transferred the five bags to a car driven by a Sydney man, 24, outside an airport freight terminal,” a statement from the AFP said.

“It will be alleged the Sydney man was acting on behalf of the Padstow man to collect the cocaine ahead of onward distribution in Australia. All three men were arrested shortly after the handover on Saturday afternoon.”

“Each of the five bags found in the car contained bricks of a white substance wrapped in black plastic. Forensic testing confirmed the substance was cocaine, with each bag containing about 20 kilograms.”

AFP members arrested the Hillsdale man less than two hours later in Coogee. The Padstow man was arrested at Rushcutter’s Bay later on Saturday evening.

Year-long investigation

Image: AFP

The AFP investigation, codenamed Operation Lucian, began in October 2022 following a report from an airline of suspicious activity that occurred near the cargo area of a Sydney-bound flight in Johannesburg.

Subsequent AFP investigations in Australia identified the Mascot and Coogee men as being in the vicinity of that inbound flight upon arrival at Sydney Airport and removing items from the cargo hold.

The group has been the subject of a 12-month AFP investigation to determine the extent of any criminal activity.

The AFP received significant assistance from the airline throughout this investigation, as well as the Sydney Airport Corporation and Australian Border Force.

Maximum penalty of life imprisonment

The three men arrested in the vicinity of the airport were charged with importing a commercial quantity of a border-controlled drug.

They were also charged with possessing a commercial quantity of cocaine.

AFP said the maximum penalty for these offences is life imprisonment.

The Padstow and Hillsdale men were each charged with conspiracy to import a commercial quantity of cocaine; the maximum penalty for this offence is also life imprisonment.

The AFP executed four search warrants at houses in Coogee, Mascot and Hillsdale (two) on Saturday evening (7 October 2023), seizing a small quantity of drugs and a number of electronic devices.

AFP committed to disrupting organised crime syndicates

AFP Detective Superintendent Kristie Cressy said the AFP was committed to targeting disrupting organised crime syndicates undermining Australia’s national security, economy and social security.

“Transnational serious organised crime groups actively try to corrupt people working at our airports because their access to airside operations is an active and efficient way to facilitate the importation of illicit drugs,” she said.

“The AFP and its partners – including airport operators, airlines and service providers – treat matters such as this as a priority because of the damage this type of corruption can cause to our communities and businesses.

“People with trusted access in an airport precinct are critical to the successful operation of Australia’s tourism and trade sectors, but the AFP will not hesitate to investigate and prosecute those who abuse this trust by assisting and profiting from organised crime.

“We will allege the organiser of this importation was well-organised and well-resourced, while the men working with trusted insiders had the potential to assist numerous criminal endeavours if they were allowed to continue unchecked.”