A Cessna 402C bound for Australia crashed in Papua New Guinea because the 500kg of cocaine it was carrying impaired its ability to take off, the Australian Federal Police have suggested.
On Friday, authorities swooped to charge five Australians for the alleged smuggling offence, which authorities claim could be linked to Italian organised crime.
The arrests were the result of a two-year operation between six law-enforcement agencies across both countries, which eventually recovered more than $80 million worth of the drug, equivalent of about 500,000 street deals.
Australian Border Force assistant commissioner, Peter Timson said, “This particularly audacious attempt shows just how brazen criminal enterprises can be”.
Police claim the group of Australians travelled from Melbourne and Sydney to Atherton in Queensland between 19 and 25 July with the aim of conspiring to retrieve the drug haul from Papua New Guinea.
On 26 July, the Cessna left Mareeba Airport and headed to Papua New Guinea, flying at below 1000 metres in order to evade radar. Later that day, on the return leg, the plane crashed shortly after take-off from a remote airstrip at Papa Lea Lea, north of Port Moresby, PNG.
The AFP said in a statement it believes the thieves’ “greed” played a part and could not rule out that the weight of cocaine had an impact on the Cessna’s ability to take off.
Then, two days later, the pilot presented himself to the Australian Consulate in PNG, where he was arrested and charged. Shortly afterwards, Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary recovered 28 bags believed to contain 500kg of cocaine.
Five alleged conspirators were arrested and charged in Queensland and Victoria for crimes including conspiracy to import commercial quantities of controlled drugs, directing activities of a criminal syndicate and money laundering.
The operation was a joint investigation between six law-enforcement organisations: the Australian Federal Police, Queensland and Victoria Police, Australian Border Force, Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission and the Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary.
Australian Federal Police deputy commissioner of investigations Ian McCartney said, “With current interstate travel restrictions in place due to COVID-19, the attempt to import illicit drugs into Australia shows how opportunistic and greedy organised crime can be.
“Australian law enforcement remains committed to working collectively to protect Australia, which is especially important now, due to the ongoing impact of the pandemic on the community.”