Mexico crime groups are targeting Australia, where high methamphetamine prices are attracting traffickers willing to negotiate the long and difficult journey with other syndicates.
Evidence of the surprising link surfaced earlier this year, when authorities in the United States, working with their Australian counterparts, seized a record 1.7 metric tons of methamphetamines and smaller quantities of cocaine and heroin.
The drugs were hidden in a shipment of audio speakers at a California sea port. They were bound for the Australian port city of Melbourne. Experts consulted by InSight Crime said the drugs are likely to have come from Mexico.
This was the largest drug seizure in Australia’s history, with an estimated worth of $1.29 billion, according to a press release from the Australian Federal Police.
Four people, two US nationals and two Australians, were arrested in Melbourne following the seizures. Authorities confiscated another 6.5 kilograms of methamphetamines and thousands of dollars in cash believed to have originated in drug sales from their homes.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Synthetic Drugs
Australia is home to a large and highly profitable drug market, particularly of synthetic drugs. Its rate of methamphetamine consumption is among the highest in the world. Also known as meth, blue, ice, and crystal, the drug methamphetamine is a highly addictive stimulant.
The latest methamphetamine seizure is the second large one in two years. In December 2017, authorities in the state of Western Australia seized 1.3 metric tons of the drug.
Experts consulted by InSight Crime in Australia and the United States pointed to the Sinaloa Cartel as the Mexican connection in this illegal chain. A 2017 report from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) said most methamphetamines in the United States are produced in Mexico.
High Street Prices
A hemisphere away, Australia would seem an unlikely destination for Mexican drugs. But high street prices there have made the country an attractive market.
A gram of methamphetamine worth between $100 and $400 in the United States can sell for double that in Australia, according to data from the United Nation’s Office on Drugs and Crime.
“We're paying some of the highest prices for drugs in the world and that's the drawcard. That's our problem,” Australian Federal Police's Assistant Commissioner for organized crime Bruce Hill told The Sydney Morning Herald.
According to the latest National Wastewater Drug Monitoring Program by the country’s Criminal Intelligence Commission, Australians are believed to consume more than 9.6 metric tons of methamphetamines, 4 tons of cocaine, 1.1 tons of ecstasy and more than 700 kilograms of heroin a year.
The amount of methamphetamines smuggled into Australia remained at some 200 kilograms a year until 2017, Hill said.
"Then we saw a huge jump, up to 1.2 (metric) tons, then 1.3 tons," he said. "There's an oversupply of (methamphetamines) for the USA and that's being redirected to Australia and other countries."
Australia's massive shipping industry is also vulnerable to drug smugglers. According to an investigation by Australian station 7 News, about 7 million large shipping containers pass through the country’s docks every year. It is estimated that less than 15,000 were opened for inspection between 2013 and 2014.
The news station also reported that the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) revealed that small jets and twin propeller airplanes were used to transport drugs to Australia, with pilots reportedly offered as much as $500,000 to carry 500 kilograms of cocaine to remote locations where no authorities are posted.
The Mexican Connection
Australia has long been a destination point for drugs, with Colombian cocaine traffickers targeting the country beginning 30 years ago, said Anthea McCarthy-Jones, a crime expert and lecturer at the University of New South Wales.
The recent surge in Mexican drugs, however, is the result of "a collaboration between Mexican and Chinese organized crime,” McCarthy-Jones told InSight Crime.
“The Mexican groups are not coming to Australia to set up shop,” she added. “We are looking at them connecting with brokers in this region, who have links in China and the Pacific. They are using them to facilitate their section of the work, like a business.”
Australia has invested increased resources in a bid to stop drugs from reaching the country’s cities, including by working more closely with counterparts in the United States and permanently stationing an officer from the Federal Australian Police in Central America in order to better understand crime dynamics in the region.
John Coyne, head of border security at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said Mexican cartels don't have foot soldiers on the ground in Australia, which means they have to work with other groups.
“We constantly see an increasing sophistication in the way their operations work," he told InSight Crime. "They are looking at a new, potentially very large market and they adapt the way they work to get a piece of it."
The powerful Sinaloa Cartel is the most likely Mexican connection in this illegal chain. The group has the greatest international reach, massive drug production capabilities, and a sophisticated logistical network. The Sinaloa Cartel has longstanding links to China, especially as a buyer of precursor chemicals needed to produce synthetic drugs.
SEE ALSO: Sinaloa Cartel Profile and News
But Mexico crime groups like the Sinaloa Cartel need intermediaries to move drugs to Australia, and experts say these middlemen are the new emerging players in the trade.
“The interesting question is who are the brokers, what do they look like, how can we identify them?" McCarthy-Jones said. "Targeting them will be even more important than tackling the cartels. Without the brokers, the networks would simply fall apart.”
Top Image: A police officer guards a haul of drugs that are on display at an Australian Federal Police office in Sydney, Australia (AP photo).