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Australian cops ground suspected traffickers after cocaine worth R500m flown in from SA

Australian cops ground suspected traffickers after cocaine worth R500m flown in from SA
Illustrative image: The Australian Federal Police intercepted 100kg of cocaine, smuggled via a plane from South Africa, during the first week of October 2023 | An Australian police project, codenamed Operation Lucian, started in October 2022 and resulted in arrests, related to cocaine and South Africa, in October 2023 (Photos: Australian Federal Police / iStock)

In 2019 two drug traffickers were arrested in Australia for attempting to smuggle cocaine into the country in passenger planes from South Africa. Now, a similar takedown has happened, showing how resilient some narcotrafficking routes are.

A hundred thousand cocaine deals could have played out on Australia’s streets in the next few days.

However, a police operation targeting an international trafficking syndicate that flew 100kg of cocaine there on a passenger plane from South Africa a few days ago prevented the consignment from being dispersed.

This is according to the Australian Federal Police (AFP).

AFP Detective Superintendent Kristie Cressy, during a press conference on Monday, 9 October, said the principal organiser of the syndicate “is associated with an organised crime group of significant interest to Australia” which had “extensive links to overseas-based entities.”

Investigation into the South African end

She said the syndicate had been monitored for roughly 12 months.

“There are still ongoing investigations in regard to the South African end and we will use our international network,” Cressy said.

“The AFP has a member in Pretoria to liaise with local authorities to further that investigation.”

Daily Maverick understands that South African authorities are aware of the Australian takedown and may be looking into the South African side of the syndicate.

On Wednesday, a Hawks spokesperson was not able to officially confirm this by the time of publication.

The cocaine was intercepted in Australia on Saturday, 7 October and five suspects were arrested. The haul is worth an estimated 40-million Australian dollars, or roughly R489-million.

Daily Maverick has previously reported on cocaine trafficking channels between South Africa and Australia.

Read more in Daily Maverick: South Africa’s lucrative drugs highway to the land Down Under

While it was also reported that global drug smugglers operating via South Africa were increasingly using maritime routes and favoured the Port of Durban, the use of aircraft has previously cropped up.

In a statement issued on Monday this week, the AFP said its recent takedown of suspected traffickers was carried out after a year-long project codenamed Operation Lucian.

Johannesburg to Sydney

The operation was launched in October 2022 “following a report from an airline of suspicious activity that occurred near the cargo area of a Sydney-bound flight in Johannesburg”.

According to the AFP, the five suspects arrested on Saturday appeared in a court in Parramatta, a Sydney suburb, the following day and were remanded in custody until 30 November.

The AFP statement said a 42-year-old man from Padstow, a city southwest of Sydney’s central business hub, was allegedly “the primary Australian facilitator of this endeavour, liaising with organised figures overseas to source the cocaine, have it placed on an aircraft and then arrange for its onward distribution in Australia”.

According to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the man from Padstow was Ahmed Haouchar.

The AFP’s statement said another man, aged 62, from the Australian suburb of Hillsdale, allegedly “coordinated the activities of two men working at the airport to facilitate the removal of the cocaine from the aircraft and deliver it to an associate of the Padstow man”.

Freight handlers

According to the AFP, the two men, one from the suburb of Mascot and the other from the coastal suburb of Coogee, “used their employment and access to freight handling operations at Sydney’s international airport”.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation named the two men as Darren Bragg and Michael McPherson and described them as baggage handlers for an airline which Daily Maverick has established was previously also the target of drug traffickers operating via South Africa.

They had allegedly helped remove “five large bags containing the cocaine from a container in the cargo hold of an aircraft, recently arrived from South Africa”.

Read more in Daily Maverick: A smuggler’s journey from war to an Aussie jail for meth hidden in meat smokers from Cape Town

The cocaine was then moved to “a secure airside area” on Saturday, 7 October.

“These two trusted insiders [involved in freight handling operations] then allegedly transferred the five bags to a car driven by a Sydney man, 24, outside an airport freight terminal,” the AFP statement said.

“It will be alleged the Sydney man was acting on behalf of the Padstow man to collect the cocaine ahead of onward distribution in Australia.”

Confirmed cocaine

Each of the five bags discovered in the car contained bricks of a white substance that were wrapped in black plastic – forensic testing confirmed the substance was cocaine.

Cops in Australia believed the intercepted cocaine could have been divided and sold via 100,000 street deals.

Read more in Daily Maverick: The curious case of the snoozing skipper, an angry seal and drug smuggling off SA’s coast

The AFP’s Kristie Cressy said in a statement: “Transnational serious organised crime groups actively try to corrupt people working at our airports because their access to airside operations is an active and efficient way to facilitate the importation of illicit drugs.

“We will allege the organiser of this importation was well organised and well resourced, while the men working with trusted insiders had the potential to assist numerous criminal endeavours if they were allowed to continue unchecked.”

Tried and tested

The arrests in Australia a few days ago are not the first time that suspects have been detained there and accused of smuggling cocaine from South Africa via planes.

A chapter in this journalist’s book, Clash of the Cartels: Unmasking the global drug kingpins stalking South Africa, focuses on Australia. 

That chapter includes a breakdown of a case that previously played out in Australia involving Damion Flower and John Mafiti, who about 23 years ago worked as baggage handlers for Qantas airline at Sydney International Airport.

Flower later got involved in the racehorse industry.

The book says: “Both Flower and Mafiti were arrested in May 2019. Three phones were confiscated from Flower’s vehicle.

“One of these, according to Australian authorities, ‘was connected to a South African Vodacom Vibe mobile phone handset’. The seized gadget added to the shadowy SA-Australia connections.”

Cargo and convicts

A 2020 New South Wales Court of Criminal Appeal judgment against Flower and Mafiti said they smuggled cocaine using commercial flights taking a particular route and landing in Sydney.

The judgment said: “The alleged modus operandi was that cocaine would arrive at the airport in quantities of around 20-25kg, aboard a Qantas flight from Johannesburg, South Africa (being flight QF64).

“It would be packed inside a duffle or sports-type bag which had been placed in one of the baggage containers in the cargo hold.”

This appears to be very similar to how the 100kg cocaine haul from South Africa was smuggled to Australia a few days ago.

In the Flower and Mafiti case, Flower eventually pleaded guilty to importing drugs and was sentenced to 28 years in jail. He would not be eligible for parole for 17 of those years.

Mafiti was sentenced to 23 years in jail, of which 14 were a non-parole period. DM

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.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • jcdville stormers says:

    Why cant SA judges give sentences of 23 years of which 14 or non parolable???

  • Michele Rivarola says:

    Links to overseas criminal networks. Is she referring to our government?

  • Sean Hammon says:

    I expect our local SA gooks to at best unhelpful in the investigation, more than likely damaging to the investigation, but most likely complicit in the criminality.

  • Richard Bryant says:

    The industry of unidentified cell phone users in SA is an enabler of a wide range of serious crimes protected by our cellular companies and ignored by our law enforcement system.

  • Matthew Quinton says:

    “Hey Comarade Bheki, did you read that DM article about the cocaine smuggling?”

    “Read? what what? Daily who?”

    “Sorry, silly question. Well anyway; we are missing out on some big action Comrade. Those WMC Australian bastards seem to like this cocaine stuffs. Ask bra-Putin if we can include some in the next Lady R shipment. It will be easy to hide it under the last shipment of left-over Denel parts”

    “Sure Comrade Cyril. I’ll call our people in Cape Town and organise a few bags of it”

    “Good, if Bra-Putin doesn’t let us use his ship I can always stuff a few buffaloes”

  • Steve Davidson says:

    “Daily Maverick understands that South African authorities are aware of the Australian takedown and may be looking into the South African side of the syndicate.”

    May? MAY??!!! Nope Hawks, get off your backsides and DO something! I realise it’s difficult, especially with the tw*t-in-the-hat as your boss, but please try!

  • Steve Davidson says:

    “Daily Maverick understands that South African authorities are aware of the Australian takedown and may be looking into the South African side of the syndicate.”

    May? MAY??!!! Nope Hawks, get out there and DO something! I realise it’s difficult, especially with the ****-in-the-hat as your boss, but please try!

  • Steve J says:

    Finding something as small as 100kg might be a problem. A very large percentage of South African crime prevention is currently occupied looking for 10,000 30tonne trucks full of coal.

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