Drug bust praised but will PNG police pursue local players?

9:19 am on 4 August 2020

Australian Federal Police have hailed the work of Papua New Guinea counterparts for their collaboration in a major drug bust.

Last Friday PNG police seized over 500 kilogrammes of cocaine - with a street value estimated at $US58-million - allegedly destined for Australia.

PNG police loading cartons of seized cocaine.

PNG police loading cartons of seized cocaine. Photo: Melvin Levongo / RNZ Pacific

Several days earlier, the drugs were believed to have been hastily removed from a small airplane which crashed on take-off on a remote airstrip near Port Moresby on the return leg of an apparent drug smuggling run from Queensland.

The seizure is one of the results of a two year operation by an Australian Federal Police-led Criminal Assets Confiscation Taskforce, which saw the AFP collaborating with PNG police particularly in recent weeks.

PNG's Police commissioner David Manning said that as part of this collaboration, they were tracking the movement of a Cessna aircraft as it flew in from Australia off radar.

"There was a signing off of an agreement between both the constabulary and the AFP to have a controlled delivery of what we knew at the time to be a substantial amount of cocaine."

While the AFP's plan was likely to have been to swoop on the cocaine cache when the Cessna arrived back in Queensland, the plane crashed and never returned. However AFP officers swooped on alleged conspirators anyway.

Five members of a Melbourne-based criminal syndicate, with alleged links to Italian organised crime, were arrested and charged for conspiring to import the cocaine into Australia.

An assistant AFP commissioner, Lisa Gayle, said the bust "shows what can be achieved with the partnerships the AFP has built with our law enforcement colleagues nationally and internationally".

"I would like to acknowledge the co-operation and excellent efforts of the Papua New Guinea authorities who have been involved in this investigation leading to the seizure of a significant amount of illicit drugs," she said.

Gayle said the alleged syndicate conspirators arrested in Australia face maximum sentences of life imprisonment, also warning that the AFP would work to track down other syndicates involved in smuggling drugs into Australia.

While the Royal PNG Constabulary has been praised for its work in this busy, it remains to be seen whether police will pursue local players who were involved in the trafficking.

The plane crash, bust and subsequent revelations about an erstwhile, politically-connected owner of the Cessna have fuelled speculation that powerful individuals in PNG are involved in lucrative regional drug smuggling networks.

PNG with its weak border security has become an easy transit point for movement of drugs like methamphetamine from Asia or South America and on to regional countries such as Australia and New Zealand.

The cocaine cache seized last week was most likely taken to PNG's mainland by sea, however its planned passage to Australia by air hit a snag.

A Cessna twin engine aircraft crashed on an old airstrip outside PNG's capital on Sunday 26 July on a suspected drug run.

A Cessna twin engine aircraft crashed on an old airstrip outside PNG's capital on Sunday 26 July on a suspected drug run. Photo: RPNGC

The Australian man who piloted the Cessna, having initially disappeared after the crash, handed himself in to authorities three days later via the Australian High Commission in Port Moresby.

David John Cutmore has been charged with breaching PNG immigration laws.

He pleaded guilty, was fined 3000 PNG Kina, and his deportation was ordered. It's expected that Australian authorities want him extradited to assist with prosecutions.

"If the pilot was charged under the PNG laws his maximum sentence would be 2 years for possession of drugs. Whereas his activities in Australia under Australian laws would carry a maximum 25 year imprisonment," Commissioner Manning said.

However the police chief said other charges against Cutmore regarding breaches of the National Pandemic Act 2020 may follow.

PNG police have alleged that up to eight people acted as accomplices to the pilot in an attempt to hide the drugs. Several local-based people have been arrested in recent days, although not all of them are believed to be PNG nationals.

Police said they executed search warrants at the Sunset Lodge at Papa Lealea near the crash site last Thursday and arrested two PNG male nationals.

Further enquiries led to the arrest of another suspect the following day, coinciding with a search at a lodge in Port Moresby where Australian cash and TV screens were retrieved - items alleged to have been brought in on the plane.

Another suspect was apprehended on the same day. Both suspects had in their possession AUD20,000 along with confiscated items believed to have been brought in on the plane.

The suspects confessed to the location of the drug which they said was at a location South of Papa Lealea. The drugs were located and retrieved on the same day.

Manning said investigations were ongoing to try and identify others involved in the syndicate.