Australian police say they foiled a major plot to import synthetic drugs that was allegedly organized by Canadian suspects. It was the third such bust in less than a year, reflecting the rising role of Canadian players in the international traffic of crystal meth and similar drugs.
The latest scheme involves nearly two tonnes of a mixture of vanilla powder and pseudoephedrine, a chemical precursor used to manufacture methamphetamine.
The Melbourne-based Joint Organized Crime Taskforce said it had arrested a 46-year-old Canadian man on Sunday as he was about to take a domestic flight to Sydney, where he was booked on a plane to Canada.
Investigators then raided a central Melbourne address where they arrested two other Canadian citizens, a 27-year-old man and 30-year-old woman.
The accused Canadians appeared in court on Monday to be charged with trafficking a commercial quantity of a drug of dependence. They are due back in court on on Jan. 10.
"This is a significant international syndicate that's been targeting Australia and we're very pleased with the outcome of the investigation," Victoria Police Assistant Commissioner Stephen Fontana told reporters.
Five other Canadian nationals and two Australian men have also been charged in the probe, codenamed Operation Diamondback, which began in July, 2012, following a tip from Australian customs and New South Wales Police.
Police said they found a storage facility in South Melbourne in September that housed more than 650 kilograms of a mixture of pseudoephedrine and vanilla powder.
The precursors could have yielded up to 300 kilos of methamphetamine with a street value of $298-million, Australian police said.
Hiding pseudoephedrine in vanilla powder is a modus operandi that has been noticed in other recent investigations.
Last November in Calgary, the Canada Border Services Agency intercepted 160 kilos of ephedrine mixed with vanilla powder in containers imported from India. The Calgary seizure was revealed when authorities announced Project Infinity, a police operation that dismantled a ring that was alleged to have been smuggling heroin from Pakistan, cocaine from Peru and chemical precursors from India.
Last July, Pakistan's Anti Narcotics Force also found ephedrine mixed with vanilla powder after raiding a house in Lahore's Iqbal Town district.
Officials say Canadians are significant players in the international traffic of methamphetamine (known in one of its forms as crystal meth) and of the precursor chemicals used for its production. Canadian synthetic drugs are exported to the United States, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.
"While domestic use of methamphetamine has shown no increase, production has risen to meet expanding international market demands," the 2010 annual report of Criminal Intelligence Service Canada said.
"Super-labs capable of producing large amounts of methamphetamine cater to international wholesale distributors with export to countries including Australia and New Zealand."
China and India traditionally have been sources of precursors, but by 2009 the South Asian subcontinent became the primary supplier because of tighter controls by the Chinese government, according to RCMP reports.
The latest arrests in Australia follow another Melbourne operation this summer in which two Canadians were among the suspects detained for trying to smuggle ephedrine hidden in 3,600 bags of rice from India.
The two Canadians, one Australian suspect and a food exporter in northern India were taken into custody after a sharp-eyed inspector for the Australian Agriculture Department checked a shipping container full of basmati rice at the port Melbourne in July. The inspector was looking for pests but noticed a white powder mixed loosely in the bag. Tests showed that it was ephedrine.
Following a controlled delivery of the consignment, investigators tracked the drug to a storage facility in a Sydney suburb. Nine search warrants were executed and police seized 274 kilos of ephedrine and $254,000 in cash.
A year ago, Australian Federal Police said that it had seized 235 kilos of methamphetamine and 115 kilos of cocaine, worth an estimated street value of up to $245-million. It had been shipped to Sydney's Port Botany, hidden in a road roller, the type used to compact gravel and asphalt.
A 34-year-old Canadian man, described as the kingpin, was arrested at a residence in Avalon, a suburb north of Sydney.