Three men have been arrested in London, U.K. and two in Western Sydney, Australia following the seizure of 450 kilos of MDMA hidden within an excavator that was shipped into the Port of Brisbane from the U.K. earlier this year.
A joint investigation was launched by the U.K. National Crime Agency (NCA) and Australian Federal Police (AFP) after the haul was discovered within the specially adapted boom of the machinery. Australian Border Force officers found the concealment when an x-ray revealed the anomalies on March 15 2020. The boom had been lined with lead in an attempt to mask the 226 packages of MDMA. After being emptied of the illicit load, the excavator was delivered to its intended recipient in Sydney.
NCA investigators analyzing encrypted messages obtained as part of Operation Venetic – the U.K. investigation into the EncroChat network – uncovered the criminal conspiracy by a London-based crime group to import drugs into the U.K., then export them in heavy plant machinery to Australia.
Messages sent on EncroChat devices between January and June 2020 detailed plans to purchase the excavator in the U.K., hand-drawn illustrations of the concealment within the boom, costs relating to the importation and confirmation that it had been loaded onto a vessel in Southampton on January 24 and arrived in Brisbane seven weeks later.
Two of the men believed to be involved in arranging the importation and exportation, Danny Brown, 53, and Stefan Baldauf, 60, were arrested in Putney by NCA officers on June 15. A third man, Peter Murray, 57, was detained outside his home address in Greenwich on October 1. All three were charged with conspiring to export class A drugs. Baldauf, a German national, was additionally charged with illegal entry in breach of a deportation order. They are next due to appear at Kingston Crown Court on January 15 2021.
On December 9, AFP officers arrested two men aged 33 and 42 who have also subsequently been charged.
“This was a global conspiracy to import huge amounts of class A drugs into the U.K., then out to Australia,” said Chris Hill, Senior Investigating Officer for the National Crime Agency.
“Through close working with our Australian partners and analysis of encrypted messages recovered as part of Op Venetic, we were able to uncover this highly organized conspiracy and prevent the criminals behind it from making millions in illicit profits.
“In the U.K., this amount of MDMA could potentially make close to £18 million. In Australia, profits would have been even higher – $79 million (£44m) if sold on the streets.
“Drug trafficking incites violence, spreads fear and exploits the vulnerable. Disrupting the OCGs involved, particularly those at the top of the chain with international reach, is a top priority for the NCA.”
Mark Bishop, head of the Asia and Pacific region for the National Crime Agency, who is based in Canberra, said: “Every day, we work closely with Five Eyes partners to share intelligence on the serious and organised crime threats impacting our countries. The AFP are a key partner in this effort and their ongoing support is vital in disrupting those international crime syndicates with links to Australia and the UK.
“Throughout Operation Venetic alone, we have jointly seized two tonnes of cocaine, MDMA, and methamphetamine headed to, or in, Australia this year.”
Australian Federal Police Assistant Commissioner Southern Command, Bruce Giles, said: “Organized crime groups seek to move illicit goods in bulk whenever they can and however they can. In this case they thought that hiding the drugs in machinery would be innocuous enough to avoid detection by Australian authorities.”
“The AFP, working with its national and international partners, will not stop in our commitment to protecting the Australian community from the harm caused by these drugs and our pursuit of those who seek to profit from peddling misery.”