A light plane overloaded with cocaine crashed on take-off en route to Australia, police said on Saturday, exposing a crime syndicate in Melbourne and leading to the arrest of five men with alleged links to the Italian mafia.
The Cessna aircraft, which was filled with more than 500 kg of cocaine, crashed while trying to leave a remote airstrip in Papua New Guinea on July 26.
The Australian Federal Police said in a statement that “greed played a significant role in the union’s activities” and added that “it cannot rule out that the weight of cocaine has an impact on the aircraft’s ability to take off”.
Five suspects have been arrested in Queensland and Victoria in the past few days and have been accused of conspiring to import more than 500 kg of cocaine and several related crimes. Each of them faces a maximum life sentence if convicted. The pilot was also arrested two days later, after surrendering to the police.
Authorities said the plane flew to Papua New Guinea from the small town of Mareeba, in the far north of Queensland, flying at about 3,000 feet to avoid radar detection.
The cocaine stockpile was found on Friday after a search of the area. Its total value has been estimated at around 80 million Australian dollars ($ 76M Cdn), equivalent to about 500,000 street businesses.
“With the current interstate travel restrictions in place due to COVID-19, the attempt to import illicit drugs into Australia shows how greedy and opportunistic organized crime can be,” AFP Deputy Commissioner Ian McCartney said in a statement.
The arrested men – aged 31, 36, 31, 33 and 61 – have been charged with several crimes. The first arrested man is accused of directing activities of a criminal syndicate and laundering more than $ 1 million in AUD. Several assets were seized by the police, with an estimated total value of $ 3.5 million.
The seizure of drugs is one of the biggest in recent Australian history. In 2016, a similar amount of 500 kg of cocaine was seized by police in New South Wales.