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Australian Reports World’s Largest Seizure of Drugs, but Observers Skeptical of Its Impact

by Gopalan on August 9, 2008 at 2:15 PM
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 Australian Reports World’s Largest Seizure of Drugs, but Observers Skeptical of Its Impact

Australian police have reported the world's largest seizure of drugs, but observers are skeptical of its actual impact on the drug abuse scene in the country.

About 4.4 tonnes of tablets hidden in tomato tins and worth around $440 million have been seized.
The shipment was actually discovered by Australian Customs and the Federal Police in Melbourne last June but remained a tightly kept secret until Friday, when the arrests were made.

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The Australian Federal Police (AFP) allege an international drug syndicate operating in Australia and Europe was responsible.

Some of Australia's alleged leading crime bosses have been arrested in a crime network that spans five states and is controlled principally by Australians with Italian connection. Apparently they were all linked to Griffith, the south-west New South Wales town that was the centre of 1970s marijuana trafficking.
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The investigation started on June 28 last year when customs officers uncovered the 4.4-tonne haul - 15 million ecstasy pills - in tomato tins aboard a container ship that arrived in Melbourne from Italy.

The key syndicate figures arrested include the alleged syndicate boss and prominent Riverina businessman, Pasquale Barbaro; the suspected drug baron and founder of the Black Uhlans Outlaw Motorcycle Gang, William Samuel Higgs; and Rob Karam, who is alleged to have used a corrupt network of Melbourne dock and freight workers to facilitate importations.

Pasquale Barbaro's partner, who refused to be named, defended the Barbaro family, but conceded their vast influence in the Riverina district. "Everybody knows the Barbaros," she said. "They're probably the wealthiest family in town. They made their money from grapes I think, but there's a lot of wealthy people around here, it's one of the richest towns in Australia."

The NSW town Griffith was also the focus of the 1979 Woodward Royal Commission into the disappearance of Donald Mackay, a local businessman who blew the whistle on the illegal trade.

Paul McKay, the son of the murdered anti-drug campaigner, urged the federal police to investigate links between organised crime and several powerful families in Griffith. He said the names Barbaro and Sergi were both raised during the 1979 Woodward Royal Commission into his father's disappearance.

The AFP Commissioner, Mick Keelty, said other search warrants were executed also in Belgium, the Netherlands and Italy.

"It's classic organised crime and we have done our best to shut down this syndicate," Mr Keelty said. "We are part of a European and Australian attempt to shut this syndicate down. What I can tell you is that this is part of a global international syndicate, this is a major disruption to trans-national organised crime both in this country and abroad.

"The fact that a syndicate can sit back after importing 4.4 tonnes of narcotics [and] can continue to operate is something that seizes the minds of investigators and has focused our work over the 12 months or so."

The CEO of the Australian Customs Service, Michael Carmody, said snippets of intelligence helped detect the drugs and officials X-rayed the tomato tin cargo.

"Amongst 3000 of those tins that were opened, we discovered 4.4 tonnes of ecstasy tablets," Mr Carmody said.

"This is a very sophisticated concealment, even to the extent of adding stones to some of the containers to give them the same weight of a tin of tomatoes."

However, the federal police delayed releasing information about the haul - which may account for up to 60 per cent of drug imports to south-east Australia - in a bid to catch syndicate members.

Another shipment which arrived in Melbourne in June this year contained three bags of cocaine weighing about 150 kilograms. The investigation has also uncovered a money-laundering operation worth more than $9 million.

"In the second case it was much less sophisticated, ... the container was carrying bags of coffee beans and thrown on top ... were three vinyl bags which will be alleged contained the cocaine," Mr Carmody said.

Despite uncovering the haul, federal agents lacked the evidence to lay charges so the operation became a drawn-out affair of watching and waiting.

Then came the coup de grace. The AFP identified the importation organiser's safe house in Melbourne and, when no-one was home, a covert team paid a visit and installed listening devices.

Last month, the AFP reviewed the intelligence it had gathered during more than a year of watching and waiting.

Police had finally gathered enough evidence to allege the involvement of a who's who of organised crime in a conspiracy to import or distribute drugs. Warrants were secretly issued and, Friday,  the AFP swooped.

The federal Attorney-General, Robert McClelland, said the successful operation was a warning to international drug syndicates.

"The volume of the seizure indicates that international syndicates saw Australia as a potentially fertile market - we hope that impression has well and truly been smashed," he said.

"One benefit of this seizure is to send a very clear message to these drug syndicates that Australia is not a soft target ... that our law-enforcement authorities are as good or if not better than any in the world and they [smugglers] face ... very serious criminal consequences."

Paul McKay, the son of murdered anti-drug campaigner Donald McKay, urged the federal police to investigate links between organised crime and several powerful families in Griffith. He said the names Barbaro and Sergi were both raised during the 1979 Woodward Royal Commission into his father's disappearance.

"I don't want to speak on behalf of the town. I don't really know much about what happened today, but it seems to be the same names that keep coming up. If someone had a serious dig around here, I think it would uncover some pretty interesting stuff," Mr McKay said.

The Mayor of Griffith, Dino Zappacosta, said he was "shocked and disgusted" by the dawn raids.

"We've had our fair share of criticism and the town's reputation has been tarnished since the death of Don McKay. We need to send a clear message that this type of activity is unacceptable and ... these people need to be driven out of town," he said.

Meanwhile, a former senior law enforcement officer with intimate knowledge of organised crime said the Calabrian mafia in Australia had changed over the past three decades.

The alleged involvement of one of the founding members of the bikie gang, the Black Uhlans, William Samuel Higgs, showed how the group had changed.

"In the '70s it was a traditional Calabrian mafia, it's now prepared to business with anyone." he said. "Back then it would've been unthinkable for them to go into business with a bikie group.

Mr Karam is an associate of alleged drug baron Tony Mokbel and was one of Crown Casino's top 200 gamblers before being banned from the casino by Chief Commissioner Christine Nixon.

The source said despite claims the federal police had arrested "Mr Bigs", he doubted they had reached the "top of the tree". "These people would be very close, but they wouldn't be at the top [in Australia].

He said there would be little hope of getting those arrested to talk. "They won't inform, given who they are. If they do they'd be dead. ... and their families will be dead as well."

The AFP Commissioner, Mick Keelty, said other search warrants were executed also in Belgium, the Netherlands and Italy.

"It's classic organised crime and we have done our best to shut down this syndicate," Mr Keelty said. "We are part of a European and Australian attempt to shut this syndicate down. What I can tell you is that this is part of a global international syndicate, this is a major disruption to trans-national organised crime both in this country and abroad.

The federal Attorney-General, Robert McClelland, said the successful operation was a warning to the drug syndicates.

"The volume of the seizure indicates that international syndicates saw Australia as a potentially fertile market - we hope that impression has well and truly been smashed," he said.

"One benefit of this seizure is to send a very clear message to these drug syndicates that Australia is not a soft target ... that our law-enforcement authorities are as good or if not better than any in the world and they [smugglers] face ... very serious criminal consequences."

But Associate Professor John Fitzgerald from the University of Melbourne's School of Population Health told ABC Radio's AM program he doubts the huge seizure will have much of an impact on supply.

"One of the issues around looking at the impact of seizures is that we're not quite sure what impact they have because the issue of stockpiling," he said.

"We know with a range of other substances, like heroin and amphetamines, that there's a high level of stockpiling that goes on, so when there is a seizure it doesn't necessarily translate to reduced access to the drug on the street."

Professor Fitzgerald says that previous seizures have failed to result in significant increases in price or drops in supply.

"Our sense is that yes, this is a big seizure, we need to watch it very carefully in terms of the impact, but our past history would tell us that the impact at the street level will be minimal if anything," he said.

Adelaide emergency doctor David Caldicott, who has a special interest in illegal drugs, is surprised by the amount of the seizure and applauds the agencies for their work.

But he also doubts it will have much of an impact on demand and supply.

"People would not be sending this quantity of product to Australia without a realistic expectation that they stand to be able to move all of this product," he said.

"So what you're looking at is a truly phenomenal demand in Australia for these sorts of drugs in the modern era.

"As long as that demand exists, it doesn't matter what interdiction does."

Source: Medindia
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