SYDNEY, NSW, Australia - A joint investigation into a shipment of approximately 552 kilograms of cocaine concealed in bags of banana pulp from Brazil has resulted in the arrest of a 68-year-old man in Sydney.
Operation Stalwart began in September 2020 following information from U.S. Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) about a suspect shipment destined for Australia, a joint statement by Australian law enforcement authorities on Saturday said.
Australian Border Force (ABF) officers say they examined the consignment which arrived into Sydney from Brazil on 21 September 2020.
The refrigerated container held close to 2,000 boxes of assorted fruit pulp. Further examination revealed approximately 275 boxes in the shipment contained banana pulp.
ABF officers identified anomalies within these boxes, with closer examination revealing a white substance secreted in the bags of banana pulp. Preliminary testing of the substance returned a positive result for cocaine.
Australian Federal Police (AFP) Crime Scene Investigators removed the cocaine from the banana pulp bags and reconstructed the shipment in preparation for a controlled delivery.
The cocaine totalled approximately 552 kilograms, which has an estimated street value of a staggering $248 million.
A joint agency controlled delivery of the shipment started in early October 2020, where the boxes containing the banana pulp were delivered to a storage facility in south-west Sydney.
Throughout the following two weeks, police allege a 68-year-old man from the Sydney suburb of Forestville collected 139 boxes of the banana pulp. It will also be alleged in court the man searched through the bags of banana pulp seeking to remove the cocaine.
The joint investigation resulted in search warrants being executed on Friday, with assistance from ABF, HSI and the New South Wales Police Force State Crime Command Drug Squad.
The 68-year-old man was arrested at his residence in Forestville, in Sydney and has been charged with offences carry a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.
During the search warrants, officers seized mobile phones, a laptop, plastic bags of banana pulp, a box labelled as banana pulp, a case of green stones suspected to be emeralds, and five one-kilogram silver ingots.
AFP Detective Superintendent Geoffrey Turner said COVID-19 border restrictions have not prevented criminal groups from trying a range of methods to bring illicit drugs into Australia.
"Organised crime groups and their associates are taking bigger risks and looking to move more illicit goods in bulk as a result of global lockdowns - they think that choosing everyday items such as fruit would be innocuous enough to thwart law enforcement detection," Detective Superintendent Turner said Saturday.
"To people who think cocaine may be harmless and part of the party scene - remember this: it is a powerful, addictive stimulant, that makes its way to Australia through a chain of violence and exploitation, and every time you use it only fuels this destruction, and line the pockets of organised crime."
ABF Superintendent Regional Investigations NSW, Garry Low said the detection showed the valuable role the ABF plays in protecting the border, and the success of our multi-layered approach to border protection.
"The ABF's technical capabilities and highly trained officers frequently seize different quantities of this illicit and dangerous substance. ABF officers work every day to detect and disrupt these types of criminal operations, no matter how sophisticated they are," Superintendent Low said Saturday.
"My message to anyone thinking of engaging in this type of activity, is to reconsider. Our wide range of detection methodologies can pick up a concealment however well-hidden criminals believe it is - and inside frozen fruit is no exception."
The man arrested appeared in Sydney Central Local Court on Friday, where he was remanded in custody. He is next to appear in court on 16 December 2020.