Fake cocaine aids record bust
Australian police have revealed details of a covert operation in which they caught large-scale drug traffickers by replacing cocaine with identically packaged gypsum plaster on a boat that, unbeknownst to the gang, had been intercepted weeks earlier.
The joint US-Australian investigation, called “Operation Beech,” resulted in the arrests of 12 people and kept 2.4 tons of cocaine from reaching Western Australia, police said on Saturday. The cocaine was valued at 1 billion Australian dollars ($677 million), and was reportedly equivalent to a six-month supply for the entire country.
The secret operation was launched in November, when the US Drug Enforcement Administration intercepted the Australia-bound cocaine shipment off the coast of Ecuador. Police said the drug traffickers, who had links to a Mexican cartel, were apparently unaware of the seizure and expected the boat to arrive in Western Australia around December 28.
Western Australia police substituted the cargo with fake cocaine and dropped it about 40 nautical miles west of Perth. Officers then monitored the floating cargo with drones and helicopters. On December 30, they arrested three men aboard a boat who had made several trips out to the area and picked up about half of the fake drugs. Weeks later, police arrested nine more suspects, including some in a traffic stop in which they found more than 2 million Australian dollars in cash. A 39-year-old US man was among those apprehended.
“The operation sends a message to international drug traffickers: Your deadly drugs are not welcome here,” said Western Australia police commissioner Col Blanch.
The Australia bust, reportedly the largest in the country’s history, came to light just about a month after New Zealand police confirmed that they had seized more than 3.5 tons of cocaine that had been found floating in the ocean. The capture was the biggest in New Zealand’s history, and given its size, authorities speculated that it was headed for Australia. The seizure included enough cocaine to supply the New Zealand market for 30 years.