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Meth hidden in mats from SA linked to Chinese million-dollar money laundering gang in Australia

Meth hidden in mats from SA linked to Chinese million-dollar money laundering gang in Australia

A suspect was once arrested in Australia for trying to traffic methamphetamine, hidden in mats, from South Africa. Now the same suspect has been charged in a crackdown there on an internationally operating, Chinese-linked money laundering gang.

Replica firearms and wads of cash, along with luxury items, including designer handbags, apparent Rolex watches, and name-brand sneakers, were seized in Australia as part of a takedown targeting a money laundering gang that was funnelling funds to China.

Four suspected members of that gang, accused of laundering more than A$39-million, which equates to nearly R480-million, in just a month, have also been arrested.

And one of the four suspects connects that takedown in Australia to South Africa – via drugs.

Criminal connections

Daily Maverick has reported extensively on narcotrafficking between the two countries.

In May 2023, Daily Maverick also reported on how four suspected cybercriminals were arrested in Australia in a police operation that suggested nearly R14-million was laundered to South African bank accounts. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: South Africa linked to Australian cybercrime after crackdown on stolen identities and money laundering

Fake passports, luxury handbags and international driver’s licences were also seized in that takedown.

Drug trafficking and money laundering – or suspicions of such – therefore criminally connect South Africa and Australia.

Now, in the latest cash-washing crackdown, the gang operating from Australia and linked to China has been targeted.

The Australian Federal Police (AFP) said the investigation into the gang, codenamed AVARUS-SINAI, began in January 2023.

Millions laundered

It involved Australia’s Victoria Police, as well as the Australian Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre.

An AFP statement, dated 28 March 2024, said: “Authorities will allege the Chinese criminal syndicate is responsible for laundering $39,527,935 in illicit cash collections and remittance funds to individuals in China using a sophisticated network of criminal associates in Melbourne between July and August 2022.”

Arrests in the case started rolling out in February 2024.

meth

Photo: Australian Federal Police.

According to the AFP statement, cops detained a man based in the Australian suburb of Doncaster East that month. He was accused of “allegedly facilitating illicit cash and remittance fund transactions on behalf of the Chinese organised criminal group”.

The following month, March 2024, a man from another suburb, Box Hill, was charged in connection with allegations that he remitted “around $20,000,000 (of the total amount) in illicit cash collections to China”.

Meth in mats

On 19 March, a 32-year-old from China, who was awaiting trial in connection with other criminal accusations in Australia, was charged for allegedly directing the Australian-based gang’s money laundering operations.

This is where South Africa fits in.

“The man was previously charged with drug import offences, allegedly linked to the attempted import of a commercial quantity of methamphetamine concealed inside a shipment of rubber mats sent from South Africa to Australia in September, 2022,” the AFP said.

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

Six days after the repeat accused with links to South Africa was charged, another man, from the inner-city suburb of South Yarra, was detained on 25 March for his alleged involvement in collecting illicit cash for the money laundering gang.

According to the AFP statement, as part of the crackdown and aside from the four arrests, search warrants were carried out in areas including Melbourne and Doncaster East.

Items including gel blasters (also known as gel guns) were seized along with “replica firearms, multiple phones, electronic devices, designer watches, documents and other luxury items, along with more than $212,000 in cash”.

An AFP video of the cash confiscation shows an officer wearing gloves packing multiple stacks of notes into a plastic evidence bag and sealing it with tape.

meth

Photo: Australian Federal Police.

‘Lifetimes of money’

The four arrested suspects, who the AFP did not name, were expected to appear in the Melbourne Magistrates’ Court on 1 July 2024.

AFP Detective Superintendent Simone Butcher said the investigations had disrupted a transnational organised crime syndicate.

“We allege that the amount of illicit wealth – a staggering $39-million – was laundered by this criminal group in just one month and is more than most hardworking individuals would earn in multiple lifetimes,” Butcher said.

“Money laundering is the lifeblood of criminal activity. This is a crime that not only supports serious organised crime, but also contributes to facilitating other illicit activities like extortion, kidnapping and illicit drug trafficking.”

Meanwhile, Daily Maverick has established that the incident involving the attempt to smuggle methamphetamine to Australia from South Africa is not the first of its kind.

Photo: Australian Federal Police.

Head Hunters gang

A previous attempt, involving an apparently unrelated accused, succeeded.

An August 2023 judgment from the New Zealand High Court, against the accused named Jordan Hokai, said he was a friend of someone who was a member of a gang known as the Head Hunters.

“You apparently mixed with that gang,” the judgment said. “You, with others, were at the bottom of the hierarchy of the group. You gained enough money to post articles on social media showing expensive clothing, jewellery and cars. However, you did not enjoy significant profit from the group’s drug dealing activities.”

Read more in Daily Maverick: Tik, cocaine and FBI-hacked phones revving relations between SA and Australian outlaw biker gang

It said that in August 2021, customs officials in Australia intercepted a parcel that turned out to contain 1.5kg of methamphetamine.

“The parcel was addressed to ‘Jordan Hoki’ at your home address,” the judgment said. “The drugs were hidden in a lawnmower and had come from South Africa.”

In June 2023, Hokai pleaded guilty to the charges against him.

Two months later, in August 2023, he was sentenced to five years and seven months in jail.

Airport cocaine arrests

Other drugs have been trafficked between South Africa and Australia.

In October, Australian police arrested five suspected traffickers after R500-million cocaine landed there on a plane from South Africa.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Five suspected traffickers arrested at OR Tambo airport in sting after R500m cocaine flown from SA to Australia

Five suspects were also arrested at OR Tambo International Airport in November in connection with the cocaine interception in Australia.

It was not the first time that drugs were smuggled on a plane from an airport in South Africa to Australia. DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.

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