AUSTRALIAN Federal Police are boasting the world's biggest ecstasy bust after seizing drugs with a street value of $440 million and carrying out raids across the country yesterday.
Some of Australia's alleged leading crime bosses have been arrested in a crime network that spans five states and is controlled principally by Australians with Calabrian heritage and linked to Griffith, the south-west NSW town that was the centre of 1970s marijuana trafficking and the focus of the 1979 Woodward Royal Commission into the disappearance of Donald Mackay, a local businessman who blew the whistle on the illegal trade.
The investigation started on June 28 last year when customs officers uncovered the 4.4-tonne haul - 15 million ecstasy pills - in tomato tins aboard a container ship that arrived in Melbourne from Italy.
The key syndicate figures arrested include the alleged syndicate boss and prominent Riverina businessman, Pasquale Barbaro; the suspected drug baron and founder of the Black Uhlans Outlaw Motorcycle Gang, William Samuel Higgs; and Rob Karam, who is alleged to have used a corrupt network of Melbourne dock and freight workers to facilitate importations.
Barbaro, 46, and the son of Francesco "Little Trees" Barbaro, who was named in the Woodward Royal Commission as a member of the Calabrian organisation behind Mackay's disappearance, was arrested in Melbourne but his sprawling Italianate mansion in Griffith was the focus of the police operation in the Riverina.
Francesco Barbaro remonstrated with four AFP officers when he arrived at the Tharbogang property around 6.30am yesterday. "I have no idea what's happening," Mr Barbaro said. "I don't know anything about drugs. Leave me alone."
In a separate raid, police stormed the Sydney home of Barbaro associate Severio Domenico Zirilli, who appeared later at Central Local Court charged with conspiring to import the 2007 ecstasy haul along with Pasquale Barbaro and others; aiding Barbaro in the importation of a commercial quantity of cocaine; and trafficking the ecstasy".
Two other Griffith men, Pat Sergi, 45, and Dominco Barbaro, 31, were arrested in Melbourne and Wagga Wagga respectively.
Pasquale Barbaro's partner, who refused to be named, defended the Barbaro family, but conceded their vast influence in the Riverina district. "Everybody knows the Barbaros," she said. "They're probably the wealthiest family in town. They made their money from grapes I think, but there's a lot of wealthy people around here, it's one of the richest towns in Australia." Twenty people including the four from NSW, nine Victorians, two South Australians and one Tasmanian have been arrested and investigations into alleged connections with the Calabrian Mafia continue.
The AFP Commissioner, Mick Keelty, said other search warrants were executed also in Belgium, the Netherlands and Italy.
"It's classic organised crime and we have done our best to shut down this syndicate," Mr Keelty said. "We are part of a European and Australian attempt to shut this syndicate down. What I can tell you is that this is part of a global international syndicate, this is a major disruption to trans-national organised crime both in this country and abroad.
"The fact that a syndicate can sit back after importing 4.4 tonnes of narcotics [and] can continue to operate is something that seizes the minds of investigators and has focused our work over the 12 months or so."
The CEO of the Australian Customs Service, Michael Carmody, said snippets of intelligence helped detect the drugs and officials X-rayed the tomato tin cargo.
"Amongst 3000 of those tins that were opened, we discovered 4.4 tonnes of ecstasy tablets," Mr Carmody said.
"This is a very sophisticated concealment, even to the extent of adding stones to some of the containers to give them the same weight of a tin of tomatoes."
However, the federal police delayed releasing information about the haul - which may account for up to 60 per cent of drug imports to south-east Australia - in a bid to catch syndicate members.
Another shipment which arrived in Melbourne in June this year contained three bags of cocaine weighing about 150 kilograms. The investigation has also uncovered a money-laundering operation worth more than $9 million.
"In the second case it was much less sophisticated, ... the container was carrying bags of coffee beans and thrown on top ... were three vinyl bags which will be alleged contained the cocaine," Mr Carmody said.
Despite uncovering the haul, federal agents lacked the evidence to lay charges so the operation became a drawn-out affair of watching and waiting.
But those behind the shipment had a weakness - they owed their European suppliers millions of dollars, money that was meant to be repaid after the drugs were sold. No drugs to sell meanta major problem.
So the AFP put the press conference on hold and assigned a team of agents to open each tin of tomatoes, remove the drugs and replace them with harmless tablets.
In phone taps, police began to pick up increasing amounts of chatter as the European suppliers became impatient and their Australian counterparts grew increasingly suspicious.
While it was suspected the AFP had substituted the drugs, no-one could be sure. Had the suppliers sold them duds? Or were the importers trying to fool the suppliers about a police seizure in order to avoid paying their debt?
A key obstacle involved the home addresses of some of the alleged organisers. Griffith, with its links to the Calabrian mafia, or Honoured Society, was a tough place for surveillance so police concentrated on monitoring the group's Melbourne activities.
Then came the coup de grace. The AFP identified the importation organiser's safe house in Melbourne and, when no-one was home, a covert team paid a visit and installed listening devices.
Last month, the AFP reviewed the intelligence it had gathered during more than a year of watching and waiting.
Police had finally gathered enough evidence to allege the involvement of a who's who of organised crime in a conspiracy to import or distribute drugs. Warrants were secretly issued and, yesterday, the AFP swooped.
The federal Attorney-General, Robert McClelland, said the successful operation was a warning to international drug syndicates.
"The volume of the seizure indicates that international syndicates saw Australia as a potentially fertile market - we hope that impression has well and truly been smashed," he said.
"One benefit of this seizure is to send a very clear message to these drug syndicates that Australia is not a soft target ... that our law-enforcement authorities are as good or if not better than any in the world and they [smugglers] face ... very serious criminal consequences."
Paul McKay, the son of murdered anti-drug campaigner Donald McKay, urged the federal police to investigate links between organised crime and several powerful families in Griffith. He said the names Barbaro and Sergi were both raised during the 1979 Woodward Royal Commission into his father's disappearance.
"I don't want to speak on behalf of the town. I don't really know much about what happened today, but it seems to be the same names that keep coming up. If someone had a serious dig around here, I think it would uncover some pretty interesting stuff," Mr McKay said.
The Mayor of Griffith, Dino Zappacosta, said he was "shocked and disgusted" by the dawn raids.
"We've had our fair share of criticism and the town's reputation has been tarnished since the death of Don McKay. We need to send a clear message that this type of activity is unacceptable and ... these people need to be driven out of town," he said.
Meanwhile, a former senior law enforcement officer with intimate knowledge of organised crime said the Calabrian mafia in Australia had changed over the past three decades.
The alleged involvement of one of the founding members of the bikie gang, the Black Uhlans, William Samuel Higgs, showed how the group had changed.
"In the '70s it was a traditional Calabrian mafia, it's now prepared to business with anyone." he said. "Back then it would've been unthinkable for them to go into business with a bikie group.
Mr Karam is an associate of alleged drug baron Tony Mokbel and was one of Crown Casino's top 200 gamblers before being banned from the casino by Chief Commissioner Christine Nixon.
The source said despite claims the federal police had arrested "Mr Bigs", he doubted they had reached the "top of the tree". "These people would be very close, but they wouldn't be at the top [in Australia].
He said there would be little hope of getting those arrested to talk. "They won't inform, given who they are. If they do they'd be dead. ... and their families will be dead as well."