Two multi-ton cocaine seizures near Australia and New Zealand had an estimated street value of over $1 billion, leading to a rethink about the flow of drugs being sent down under from Latin America.
Australian federal police announced in early March that 2.4 tons of cocaine had been seized en route to the country, setting a new national record. While only recently revealed, the seizure took place back in November when US drug enforcement officials boarded the vessel off the coast of Ecuador.
Instead of simply seizing the drugs, authorities decided to bait the traffickers in Australia. The real cocaine, worth an estimated $677 million, was replaced with identically packed fake narcotics, transported, and dropped into the ocean 40 nautical miles off the southwestern city of Perth on December 28.
Three men were then arrested on December 30 after going out to sea to retrieve the drugs, and further investigations led to nine more arrests in the country.
And in February, the New Zealand Customs Service announced the interception of a still-greater quantity of cocaine, totaling 3.2 tons. The haul was found in dozens of packages floating six days north of the country by ship. This shipment was intended for Australia as it represented "30 years of cocaine" supply for New Zealand, said Greg Williams, the director of the country's anti-organized crime police unit.
In both cases, a Mexican connection is suspected. The traffickers who picked up the cocaine off Perth were known to have links to an unspecified Mexican cartel, according to Western Australia's police commissioner, Col Blanch.
"On the cocaine side, it is safe to assess that Mexican cartels have monopolistic control of the supply and value chain [to Australia]," John Coyne, head of border security at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, told InSight Crime.
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As cocaine production continues to soar, traffickers may be willing to brave more risks to get across the Pacific Ocean, given the profits involved.
A kilogram of cocaine, depending on purity, may sell for as much as 400,000 Australian dollars ($266,000) in the country's eastern cities, according to the Australian federal police in August 2022. Similarly eye-watering prices can be fetched in New Zealand, making the two countries among the most lucrative cocaine markets in the world.
"Australians pay some of the highest prices in the world for illicit drugs. So when this is combined with an excess of supply of products from Latin America, it is natural that these groups would be targeting Australia to expand," stated Anthea McCarthy-Jones, a lecturer and organized crime expert at the University of New South Wales.
And while the latest discoveries were surprisingly large, they represent a logical escalation. Smaller yet still notable cocaine hauls have been piling up in Australia for several years. The country's previous cocaine seizure record was only set in 2020, itself beating out a 2017 haul.
The Sinaloa Cartel, Mexico's most prominent criminal group, appears to have been able to follow this rise in demand. Since at least 2011, Australian authorities have pointed to the group as a major supplier of cocaine and methamphetamine. Using connections in Peru and Ecuador to secure cocaine shipments, the Sinaloa Cartel has also teamed up with Australia-based biker gangs to distribute the drugs locally, Coyne explained to InSight Crime.