Sydney, Australia, Aug 1 (efe-epa).- Members of a Melbourne criminal syndicate have been arrested and charged over a suspected attempt to smuggle more than 500 kilograms of cocaine from Papua New Guinea to Australia in a small plane, which crashed on takeoff, Australian Federal Police said Saturday.
The Cessna was found with its Australian pilot missing near a remote runway in Papa Lea Lea, 30 kilometers (19 miles) northwest of Port Moresby last Sunday.
The AFP said in a statement that it “cannot rule out that the weight of the cocaine had an impact on the plane’s ability to take off.”
Two days later the pilot handed himself in to the Australian Consulate in the capital and was charged with a PNG immigration offense.
“This particularly audacious attempt shows just how brazen criminal enterprises can be,” Australian Border Force Assistant Commissioner, Peter Timson, said.
The crime syndicate, which AFP said has links to Italian mafia, was already under surveillance as part of a two-year operation.
Five alleged conspirators were arrested in Queensland and Victoria states shortly after the plane took off from Mareeba in Australia for PNG earlier on Sunday, flying at 3,000 feet (914 meters) to avoid radar detection.
The cocaine, with an estimated street value of more than AU$80 million ($57 million), was seized on Friday night by PNG police.
The five arrested in Australia, aged from 31 to 61 years, face life in prison for a range of charges including conspiracy to import commercial quantities of border-controlled drugs, money laundering, and directing or supporting a criminal syndicate.
One of the men is alleged to have been tasked by the syndicate to transport the drugs via a heavy vehicle. Photos show the bed of a truck with hollowed out space concealed under floorboards.
Assets worth AU$3.5 million were also seized, including three properties, shares, account funds and a motor vehicle.
“With current interstate travel restrictions in place due to COVID-19, the attempt to import illicit drugs into Australia shows how opportunistic and greedy organized crime can be,” AFP Deputy Commissioner Investigations Ian McCartney said.
Assistant Commissioner Tess Walsh added that “the pursuit of drug manufacturers and traffickers is something that never ends for police.” EFE-EPA