A tobacco smuggling operation with links to Middle Eastern organised crime and involving corrupt Sydney waterfront workers has been shut down after the seizure of millions of cigarettes bound for black markets.
The syndicate, which allegedly shipped large quantities of cigarettes from the United Arab Emirates, is accused of paying kickbacks worth tens of thousands of dollars to employees from customs brokerage and freight forwarding companies.
Authorities expect to make further arrests after 12 people, including one woman, were charged after raids at 17 Sydney properties on Tuesday.
Two men faced Sutherland Local Court on Wednesday on various charges related to the illegal tobacco importation as well as the alleged importation of 270 grams of cocaine.
A third man, who is a member of the Lone Wolf outlaw motorcycle gang, was also due to face the same court on Wednesday over the cigarette syndicate and drugs charges.
The remainder of the syndicate will face court next month.
The arrests come after a joint operation involving the Australian Federal Police, NSW Police and Australian Border Force, which began just over a year ago.
Australian Border Force Deputy Commissioner Michael Outram said the “sheer size of the profits” available in the illegal tobacco trade made it attractive to organised crime.
“Elicit tobacco is a real priority for the Australian Border Force simply because of the involvement of serious and organised crime groups and transnational crime groups,” he told reporters in Sydney.
“They’ll trade in tobacco, they’ll trade in drugs, they’ll trade in human beings.”
He said the same tactics could be used to smuggle guns and drugs.
“If they can turn a quick buck with relatively low risk then they’ll do it, whether that’s drugs, whether that’s tobacco or in some cases whether that’s people smuggling.”
Police also seized $400,000 in cash during the raids on Tuesday.
About $2 million worth of assets including bank accounts and properties had been frozen.
It’s alleged the syndicate imported more than 10 million cigarettes, including one shipment of nine million “Manchester” branded cigarettes, which was seized after arriving at Sydney’s Port Botany last week, and had a black market value of about $5.4 million.
More than $700,000 had been seized during the course of the investigation.
AFP acting deputy commissioner Ian McCartney said further arrests were expected.
“This is a sophisticated syndicate, obviously with tentacles here plus overseas,” he told reporters.
The Maritime Union of Australia says its officials and members are in no way connected to the crimes.
The union said it was not aware of any of its members being charged or involved, and the AFP had not contacted it.
“Media reports stating “maritime officials” are misleading and do not refer to the union,” it said in a statement.