POLICE have charged three men allegedly linked to an organised crime syndicate that attempted to smuggle more than 800 kilograms of cocaine into Australia hidden on a bulk carrier.

The joint agency investigation started after authorities received intelligence about a plot for illicit drugs to be dropped in the ocean off the West Australian coast in May for collection by an Australia-based syndicate.

Authorities were investigating bulk carriers destined for WA ports in May when on 24 May, Western Australia Police Force (WAPF) and Volunteer Marine Rescue WA assisted the crew of a 10-metre cabin cruiser in distress near Rottnest Island, about 22 kilometres off the coast of Fremantle.

Three men were onboard the cabin cruiser, named No Fixed Address.

Law enforcement suspicions were raised after the AFP identified the cabin cruiser had been purchased using cash a day earlier, hours before it was taken to sea, and accounts of the trio’s trip seemed suspicious. The men also appeared to have limited boating experience and allegedly told police they had engine trouble.

ABF officers boarding the ship. Image: ABF

Australian Border Force and the AFP started investigating bulk carriers that were in the area at the same time the cabin cruiser was in the water.

The movements of the bulker ST Pinot were identified as potentially matching the intelligence developed by authorities.

ABF officers boarded the vessel at sea, which had travelled from South America last Thursday (25 May) to undertake a search and interview the crew.

The vessel was taken to the Port of Fremantle and later moved to a berth located at Kwinana, where AFP, ABF and WAPF members searching the vessel found suspicious packages submerged in a water-filled ballast tank.

Royal Australian Navy clearance divers retrieved 28 packages wrapped in blue plastic from the water and another package was retrieved once the tank was drained. Each of the 29 packages contains numerous one-kilogram blocks of a white powdered substance. Forensic tests returned positive results for cocaine.

Testing of the total weight and purity of the seized drugs is ongoing, but police expect the seizure will total more than 800 kilograms of cocaine.

Police estimate the haul would have been worth $320 million.

The three men who had been on the 10-metre cabin cruiser were arrested on Wednesday (31 May). Two were taken into custody in Perth, while the third was arrested in Sydney as he tried to board a flight overseas.

Police will allege the trio had gone out to sea in the cabin cruiser to collect the drugs.

The men, aged 21, 25 and 29, were charged with attempting to import a commercial quantity of a border-controlled drug.

The two men arrested in Perth faced court yesterday (1 June), while the third man, aged 21, is expected to be extradited from Sydney to Perth. He is a Lithuanian national who arrived in Australia on 16 May.

An ABF officer searching part of the ship. Image: ABF

They face a maximum penalty of life imprisonment if convicted.

Investigations are ongoing into the alleged involvement of the crew of the cargo vessel and a search of that vessel is continuing.

AFP Assistant Commissioner Pryce Scanlan said the seizure demonstrates the importance of collaboration between law enforcement.

“The illicit drug supply chain is littered with violence and had this amount of cocaine made its way to Australian streets, it would have spread through our suburbs fuelling more violence, crime and drug addiction,” Assistant Commissioner Scanlan said.

“We must continue to tackle drug supplies directly before they reach our streets, and the AFP’s well-established presence internationally puts us in a prime position to disrupt the importation of drugs before they can damage our communities.”

ABF Commander Operations West Ranjeev Maharaj said the Australian border was a strategic national asset critical to driving Australia’s economy, so its protection against illicit drug importation was vital.

“Cocaine shipments are being seized at Australia’s borders at record levels, and criminal syndicates should understand that the ABF does not work in isolation, but rather in partnership with domestic and foreign agencies,” Commander Maharaj said.

“It’s incredible to think that those behind this audacious attempt thought they could get away it.

“The ABF, in collaboration with our partner agencies, will continue to structure efforts in deterring, detecting and disrupting those who seek to import harmful drugs into Australia.”

ST Pinot (IMO 9596179) is a 57949 DWT tonne geared bulk carrier. It is flagged in the Marshall Islands.

Publicly available AIS data shows the vessel still at berth in Kwinana as of Friday afternoon (2 June).