Thirteen arrested as part of cross-border organised crime investigation

This is a joint media release between WA Police, Victoria Police, Australian Border Force and WA Department of Health.

Thirteen people have been arrested this week as part of a cross-border investigation into an organised crime group linked to the trafficking of illicit tobacco.

Seven men and two women, including some with alleged links to a Middle Eastern crime group, have been charged by WA Police Force in relation to a $10 million illicit tobacco network operating in Western Australia.

In April 2024, the WA Police Force Serious and Organised Crime Division established Taskforce Cosgrove in partnership with Victoria Police and Australian Border Force to investigate the illicit tobacco network and a series of arson offences in the Perth metropolitan area, alleged to be linked to the network and crime group.

The head of the group in Western Australia – a 29-year-old man – previously from Victoria, is believed to have moved to WA in the last two years to establish the illicit tobacco network.

Due to an escalation in serious offences, the taskforce moved to resolution phase in June 2024.

Between Sunday, 16 June and Tuesday, 18 June, 50 search warrants were executed at private residences, storage units, and retail outlets including tobacco and convenience stores and gift shops in regional WA and the Perth metropolitan area.

During the WA warrants the following was located and seized:

• 5.9 million illicit cigarettes;

• $1.7 million in cash;

• 1.4 tonnes of loose illicit tobacco;

• 41,000 vapes; and

• Five vehicles with a combined value of more than $500,000.

Nine people, including the 29-year-old man, were taken into custody during the warrants and have each been charged with received, possessed, concealed, disposed of or dealt with any money or other property that is the proceeds of an offence.

During the WA warrants, the ABF deployed a team of investigators, digital forensic officers, members of the Illicit Tobacco Taskforce and currency-trained detection dogs.

All tobacco products have been provided to the ABF for further investigation and consideration of additional charges under federal taxation laws.

Similarly, vape related products have been provided to the WA Department of Health for further investigation.

As part of the joint operation, Victoria Police executed six warrants in Victoria on Monday, 17 June.

The warrants were executed by detectives from Taskforce Lunar and with assistance from VIPER Taskforce at residential properties in Sunbury, Wollert, Collingwood, Werribee (2) and Altona Meadows.

Police seized 15 firearms from the Sunbury address, along with approximately 2.4 million illicit cigarettes, a gel blaster and a stolen vehicle.

The cigarettes are valued at approximately $2.4 million with a tax excise avoidance of between $2.5-3 million.

A 29-year-old Sunbury man was arrested at the property and subsequently charged with prohibited person in possession of firearms, theft of motor vehicle, possess a traffickable quantity of firearms and Commonwealth tax offences relating to illicit cigarettes.

He was remanded in custody to face Melbourne Magistrates Court on 20 September.

A further 50,000 illicit cigarettes, 30 kilograms of loose tobacco, vapes, a crossbow, ammunition, cash and drugs including cocaine, steroids and magic mushrooms were seized from other addresses.

Police also arrested a 26-year-old Wollert man who is expected to be charged on summons with illicit tobacco offences and weapons offences, and a 28-year-old Collingwood man who was charged with drug and proceeds of crime offences. The latter was bailed to appear at Melbourne Magistrates Court on 4 September 2024.

A 19-year-old Officer man was arrested in relation to the investigation into a suspicious fire at a tobacco store in Seville on 11 February. He was interviewed and released pending further enquiries.

The investigation into the network in Victoria and in Western Australia and associated arson offences remains ongoing.

Anyone with information about illicit tobacco is urged to contact Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000 or report online at www.crimestoppersvic.com.au

Quotes attributable to Detective Acting Superintendent Jeff Beros, Serious and Organised Crime Division – WA Police Force:

“This is another example of the determination of the WA Police Force to target organised crime and violent offending in our state.

Attractive profit margins can be generated from the sale of illicit tobacco and this has caused an environment where organised crime groups are aggressively competing for market share, resulting in violent offences such as criminal damage, threats and extortion being undertaken in our community.

We have seen this violence and harm being undertaken in other parts of Australia and we are resolute in not letting these groups flourish in Western Australia.

These outcomes, including the arrest of the head of the group and his offsiders, sends a clear message to anyone who thinks they can undertake this type of criminal activity in Western Australia – you will be caught and you will be prosecuted.

I’d like to thank Victoria Police, Australian Border Force and Department of Health for their assistance during this operation.”

Quotes attributable to Detective Acting Superintendent Mark Hatt, State Anti-Gangs Division, Crime Command – Victoria Police:

“Victoria Police has worked closely with both state and Federal law enforcement agencies over the past 18 months to target organised crime groups linked to the illicit tobacco trade and associated violence. This week’s results are testament to those partnerships.

Since Taskforce Lunar was established last October, we have arrested almost 70 people involved in serious and violent offending linked to the illicit tobacco trade including arsons and extortions.

Along with these arrests, police have also focused on targeting syndicate leaders and those responsible for facilitating this offending. This remains a key priority for Victoria Police.

There is no doubt that the arrests in Victoria and Western Australia this week will have a significant impact on the organised crime groups operating in Victoria.

We will continue to work closely with our law enforcement partners to look at any further opportunities to target and disrupt these organised crime groups.

These criminal syndicates are both reckless and relentless, with their actions putting the community at risk in order to gain control of a particularly lucrative illicit tobacco market.

We have also made it clear that cooperation from store owners and staff remains absolutely integral when it comes to getting timely intelligence about the threats these groups pose. We are continuing to appeal to owners and staff of stores to work with police to provide information about activities related to illicit tobacco – those in the industry are crucial to our ability to disrupt and dismantle these organised crime syndicates.”

Quotes attributable to Commander Ranjeev Maharaj – Australian Border Force:

“ABF officers have detected and seized record levels of illicit tobacco at Australian ports, making the supply chain a more hostile environment for criminal gangs looking to profit from the illicit tobacco market.

Last financial year the ABF seized 1.7 billion illicit cigarettes in 120,000 consignments at the border, but this alone will not put an end to this insidious trade.

While we make every attempt to stop illicit tobacco at the border, we also work closely with our law enforcement partners to target the sale of illicit tobacco at the retail level by supporting these operations.

The illicit tobacco trade is not a victimless crime, as profits raised from its sale fund other crimes, causing harm to the community in many ways.”

Quotes attributable to the Department of Health Director of Public Health Regulation, Neil Keen:

“This significant vape seizure highlights our commitment to cutting off the supply of illegal vapes, and our collaboration with the WA Police Force is crucial in these enforcement efforts.

Intercepting these vapes before they can be unlawfully sold into the community will ultimately help to preserve the health and wellbeing of all Western Australians.”

/Public Release. View in full here.