Police have arrested five men allegedly connected to the importation of 188 kilograms of cocaine seized by Australian authorities in 2019. A sixth man is to be served a court attendance notice.

The men are being questioned by police after being taken into custody during a series of coordinated pre-dawn search warrants in New South Wales on Tuesday (30 March).

Police will allege the men are part of a transnational criminal syndicate that intended to distribute the cocaine throughout Australia after it was supplied by a Mexican drug cartel hidden in a shipment of aluminium alloy ingots.

Police estimate this amount of cocaine has a street value up to $47 million. The investigation was launched in February 2019, after Australian Border Force officers at a Sydney Container Examination Facility found anomalies in a bulk metal consignment sent from Mexico.

Their examination allegedly identified blocks of white powder concealed in well-constructed, hollowed-out sections of 188 of the 1890 aluminium ingots stacked on the pallets.

Subsequent Australian Federal Police forensic analysis revealed the substance was high-purity cocaine, with a total weight of approximately 188 kilograms. The major joint investigation into the shipment combined the resources of the AFP, ABF, NSW Police Force, ACIC and the New South Wales Crime Commission (NSWCC), with the assistance of international partners U.S. Homeland Security Investigations (HSI).

Police identified an Australian-based criminal syndicate allegedly behind multiple drug importations.

In December 2020, an air-cargo consignment from India – which was declared to contain vehicle parts – was examined at the Sydney Container Examination Facility by ABF officers, who discovered nearly 50 kilograms of powder concealed within the items.

The powder was tested and returned a presumptive positive result for ephedrine. Following inquiries, two men – aged 39 and 49 – were arrested and subsequent search warrants resulted in the seizure of 50 kilograms of iodine.

The iodine and ephedrine seized during the operation has the potential to produce 38 kilograms of methamphetamine, which police say has an estimated potential street value of $9.5 million. The men remain before court for these matters.

The 49-year-old man charged during this December operation is alleged to be part of the wider syndicate also involved in the 188-kilogram cocaine seizure. He is expected to be served a court attendance notice in jail linked to today’s police activity.

This morning, search warrants were executed across NSW in the suburbs of Condell Park, Lindfield, Luddenham, Sydney, Strathfield, Villawood, Kingsford, Roseberry, Chatswood, Dolls Point, and Lake Conjola.

Police seized cash, various jewelry, multiple electronic devices, and approximately 80 ingots from the cocaine shipment stored at a warehouse in Villawood.

Five men were arrested, alleged to be part of the Australian syndicate linked to the 188 kilograms of cocaine seized: A 61-year-old from Condell Park, a 37-year-old from Luddenham, a 60-year-old from Linfield, a 69-year-old from Sydney and a 66-year-old from Strathfield.

Police were able to arrest these men now due to the continued investigation into the criminal syndicate in Australia and the extensive evidence-gathering process which now allows these charges to be brought before court.

Police will allege the Australian syndicate set up a company in New South Wales that had a similar name and corporate identity to a legitimate European company in an attempt to avoid law enforcement scrutiny of the illicit importation.

Police will allege none of the men charged are involved in businesses that use large quantities of aluminium.

ABF Enforcement Operations East Acting Commander Garry Low said this operation highlights the ABF’s commitment to stopping criminal syndicates polluting Australian streets with drugs.

“The detection of drugs within this sophisticated concealment is a testament to the skills and dedication of ABF Officers working at our borders,” A/g Commander Low said.

“By partnering with state, federal and international law enforcement agencies, the ABF works to ensure drug imports like this one don’t make it into Australia, and that those responsible for importing it are held to account.”

AFP Commander Kirsty Schofield said the arrests of the men are a significant win in the fight against the illicit drug trade.

“Transnational organised crime networks pose a significant threat to Australia’s economy, our security and our way of life,” Cmdr. Schofield said.

“They see Australia as a lucrative market to target because of the high demand for drugs and the high prices users will pay. They do not care about the harm and violence those substances bring, or the damage they do when they infiltrate legitimate businesses to launder their profits.”

Commander of NSW Police Drug and Firearm Squad, Detective Superintendent John Watson said as organised crime evolves, law enforcement agencies will continue to collaborate and respond accordingly.

“Today’s arrests are the result of agencies here and abroad working towards the common goal of suppressing and dismantling criminal networks who are intent on causing harm to the community,” Det. Supt Watson said.

“The syndicate that has been brought down today is significant and shutting it down will put a substantial dent in the drug trade in NSW and across the country. NSW Police will proudly stand shoulder to shoulder with our law enforcement partners to tackle the threat of organised crime and this result is evidence of that.”

“This is a tremendous accomplishment that demonstrates the combined power of collaboration between international law enforcement,” Adam Parks, HSI Attaché to Australia, said.

“Collaboration keeps us one step ahead of Transnational Criminal Organizations who know no borders and target Australia, the U.S., and many other countries around the world. We will continue to vigorously pursue these organizations, and everyone associated with them, wherever they hide.”

Members of the community with information relating to drug imports can contact Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000 and can report it online through Crime Stoppers.