GLOBAL ORGANISED CRIME
A smuggler’s journey from war to an Aussie jail for meth hidden in meat smokers from Cape Town
A drug-smuggling case in Australia has revealed a repeat convict’s journey from war-torn Vietnam to a refugee camp in Malaysia and to Melbourne – where methamphetamine hidden in meat smokers was sent from Cape Town in 2021.
Minh Nguyen-Huynh was born in Vietnam around 1971.
He had three younger siblings and grew up in a province that a judge would later describe as “significantly affected by the war”.
Aside from the impacts of warfare, Nguyen-Huynh had a difficult childhood. He was bullied at school and his mother was often absent because she had to work to support their family.
War in Vietnam to jail in Australia
Eventually, together with some cousins, Nguyen-Huynh fled Vietnam in a boat to Malaysia where he spent time in a refugee camp before returning to Vietnam and getting a job in tailoring and the electrical sector.
In 1997 he arrived in Australia as a refugee, first touching down in Sydney and then Melbourne. He worked as a handyman.
Nguyen-Huynh is now the father of three children, aged 10, 13 and 15 years, and has a wife involved in the beauty therapy industry.
He is now also an inmate after being convicted and sentenced in a fascinating transnational drug smuggling case that involves meat smokers and methamphetamine and that connects Australia to South Africa.
DM168 has previously reported on how Australian and South African drugs syndicates work between the two countries.
In a recent drug interception, three men from Sydney were arrested at the international airport there in mid-February for allegedly smuggling about 34kg of methamphetamine concealed in statues.
Australia’s Federal Police said two of the men arrived from South Africa and when their belongings were searched, 22 resin-coated statues were found.
“An initial test of the statues returned positive for methamphetamine,” the federal police said.
The operation involved Australian cops basically tripping up the syndicate by secretly switching a stash of methamphetamine with pool salt.
Nothing was mentioned about the South African side of the investigation.
This is not uncommon when Australian authorities announce arrests that link to South Africa – they do not reveal much about what they uncover relating to this country.
In the matter that Nguyen-Huynh is central to, a brief reference to South Africa is made.
Details of his background are contained in a court document relating to the jail term handed to him in an Australian court on 17 February 2023.
Nguyen-Huynh, who was convicted after pleading not guilty in the drug importation case, was sentenced to 16 years’ imprisonment and will be eligible for parole after 11 years.
The investigation that led up to his case was codenamed Operation Jumbuck and was launched on 4 January 2021.
It involved Australian cops basically tripping up the syndicate Nguyen-Huynh was convicted of being part of – by secretly switching a stash of methamphetamine with pool salt.
According to the court document as to why Nguyen-Huynh was sentenced to 16 years in jail, the case started up when a custom broker was put in touch with Australia’s Border Force.
Border force officers, at a facility where international and local mail was screened, subsequently intercepted “three large boxes labelled multihead packing machines air freighted from South Africa via Hong Kong”.
Methamphetamine in meat smokers
The shipment was examined and methamphetamine in vacuum-sealed packs were discovered “secreted within the lining of boxes that contained meat smokers”.
A joint media release issued in March 2023, involving the Australian Border Force, among others, said 63kg of methamphetamine, worth more than R146-million, was found in the meat smokers that were flown from Cape Town to Melbourne.
This resulted in the January 2021 launch of Operation Jumbuck.
According to the sentencing document against Nguyen-Huynh, cops secretly switched the methamphetamine they had discovered with pool salt and took clandestine control of the dud drug delivery.
In 2012 he had been convicted in a matter related to trafficking meth hidden in a child’s backpack.
“On 13 January 2021, the boxes were delivered to the consignee address by a police officer posing as a delivery driver,” it said.
“The delivery address was a lock-up shed behind a residential property [in a Melbourne suburb] used by your co- accused to store building materials. It was kept under surveillance.”
Nguyen-Huynh and others were spotted at the shed.
He was arrested soon after.
“This was an illegal shipment of moderate sophistication, involving concealing the illegal drug in 1kg vacuum-sealed packages, secreted in the lining in three large boxes that contained meat smokers but were labelled as containing machinery,” the sentencing document against him said.
“The syndicate was using a technique known as a ‘ghost shipment’ where the illegal drug was hidden within a shipment that purported to be a regular shipment to Australia of products from a manufacturing company in South Africa.”
Nguyen-Huynh had been using a phone registered in a false name.
It was also found that Nguyen-Huynh was “clearly trusted by unknown persons in the operation”.
Nguyen-Huynh previously, in November 2021, unsuccessfully tried to get released from custody on bail.
History of crimes
According to a Supreme Court of Victoria decision linked to that, there was another accused in the case, Duc Quang Nguyen – although a jury could not reach a conclusion with regards to Nguyen.
The supreme court documents said it appeared Nguyen-Huynh had “strong overseas connections”.
When he had tried to be released on bail, his criminal history of nearly two decades was focused on.
The court papers said that in 2004 Nguyen-Huynh was convicted in a case involving “the offences of making a threat to kill and assault with a weapon” and in 2011 was convicted in a defrauding conspiracy case.
In 2012 he had been convicted in Victoria in a matter related to “trafficking in around 6kg of methamphetamine with a potential street value of $6-million”.
The stash was hidden in a child’s backpack.
For that, Nguyen-Huynh was sentenced to eight years in jail and was granted parole in 2017.
The parole expired in 2020 and in the following year, 2021, he was arrested in the meat smoker-methamphetamine case.
During the first week of March, Australia’s Federal Police released a joint statement with other authorities about Nguyen-Huynh’s sentencing but did not name him.
DM168 established who the statement referred to by matching the date Nguyen-Huynh was sentenced, and other details in the statement, to those contained in court papers in his case.
The statement read: “[He] was a key facilitator in importing [the] methamphetamine [in meat smokers].”
In reaction to Nguyen-Huynh’s sentencing, Damien Appleby, the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission’s national manager of south operations, said it would work with authorities in, as well as outside, Australia.
“By continuously and tirelessly targeting key players, in collaboration with our partners, we continue to dismantle these criminal networks,” he said. DM168
Caryn Dolley has spent years tracing the footprints of crime/drug kingpins from across the world. In her latest book, Clash of the Cartels, Dolley provides unprecedented insight into how specific drug cartels and syndicates have operated via South Africa, becoming embroiled in deadly violence in the country and bolstering local criminal networks. Available now from the Daily Maverick Shop.
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.