ILLICIT drug importers and transnational crime syndicates are using ro-ro ships to smuggle cocaine, MDMA (ecstasy) and ketamine into Australia, concealed in new vehicles.

The Australian Border Force has singled out Fremantle and Melbourne as ports of particular interest but notes the problem is Australia-wide.  

“The ABF deploys numerous detection technologies, including drug detector dogs and narcotic detection devices, to counter the efforts of organised crime groups, and works closely with its law enforcement partners to defend the integrity of the Australian border,” it said.

In May 2023, under Operation Meribel, ABF investigators identified a [unnamed] ro-ro transporting two new commercial vans suspected of concealing drugs. ABF officers examined the vehicles on the vessel and found suspicious packages concealed inside panels of the vans. The ABF located 79 plastic bags, which were found to contain 84kg of ketamine, with an estimated wholesale value of $3,360,000.

The matter was referred to the Australian Federal Police who conducted further investigations leading to the arrest of two men.

The men – aged 28 and 29 – were charged with allegedly attempting to possess a commercial quantity of border controlled drugs. They remain before the courts.

Operation Silkwood began after intelligence identified an alleged importation of cocaine concealed within a consignment of 13 luxury buses on board an international cargo ship destined for Adelaide, via Perth. ABF officers conducted a search of the buses on 28 January 2024, after the ship arrived in Fremantle’s Inner Harbour.

During the search, ABF officers located numerous packages in four of the buses. A presumptive test of the packages returned a positive result for cocaine. In total, 139kg of cocaine was seized and the matter was subsequently referred to the AFP. The cocaine has an estimated potential street value of $45 million.

Following further inquiries led by the AFP, two men – aged 22 and 19 – were arrested at a hotel in Port Adelaide and charged over the alleged attempted import. They remain before the courts.

Since the success of Operation Meribel and Operation Silkwood, ABF maritime operations continue to deploy sophisticated detection technologies to counter the efforts of organised crime groups. ABF superintendent, maritime operations (VIC/TAS), Dan Peters, said ABF detection methods are among the best in the world at identifying drugs concealed on ro-ro vessels.

“ABF officers remain determined to stop the importation of highly dangerous drugs – concealed in new vehicles – entering Australia,” Superintendent Peters said.

“Criminal groups continue to get bolder and more creative in their attempts to bring drugs across the border and into the community, but our targeting and detection methods will bring them undone.  

“The border is an asset that holds immeasurable strategic value for our nation and that is why the ABF works across all domains – air, land and sea – to ensure criminals fail in their many attempts to undermine its integrity.”

Members of the community are encouraged to report suspicious border-related activity through the Border Watch program at Information can be provided anonymously.