After Months of Cocaine Washing Ashore, Australian Police Make an Arrest

It started with one package, plastic-wrapped and barnacle-encrusted, discovered on a secluded beach in New South Wales, Australia, one balmy evening in December. Inside were 39 sealed packages, each containing about two pounds of cocaine, according to the police.

Then, within days, nine more packages were found across eight beaches and bays spanning a 60-mile stretch of coastline between Sydney and Newcastle. And more kept washing ashore in the following weeks and months. By mid-April, the police had collected about 560 pounds.

Some were small, individual blocks; others came in large bundles. In one instance, a lifeguard plucked a two-pound block out of the water off Bondi Beach in Sydney. In another, a fisherman found a blue barrel containing 39 two-pound blocks.

The question on everyone’s minds: Where had they come from?

On Thursday, the police announced a breakthrough in the case. The Australian Federal Police said at a news conference that they had arrested a 36-year-old Queensland man, whom they accused of being the ringleader of an organized crime network that had tried to smuggle the cocaine into the country.

The police said they believed the man had coordinated a shipment of 900 kilograms, or about 1,980 pounds, of cocaine to be smuggled into the country via a ship in November last year, said Superintendent Adrian Telfer of the A.F.P.

The drugs were dropped into the ocean near Brisbane, Queensland, in northeast Australia, he said, but the smugglers then could not retrieve them.

“At the time that we believe these drugs were offloaded into the ocean,” Superintendent Telfer said, “there were very adverse weather conditions, and we believe that they were a significant factor in why they couldn’t recover these drugs.”

The man, whom the police have not named, was also responsible for organizing the import of about 1,230 pounds of cocaine into a remote town in Western Australia last year, the police said.

In that case, the police said, the cocaine was dropped overboard from a bulk cargo carrier and then collected out of the ocean and brought ashore.

The police say that he used the pseudonyms “Wanted” and John Dillinger — after the Depression-era American bank robber — on encrypted platforms on which he contracted out drug pickup jobs.

The man has been charged with drug importation, drug trafficking and other offenses, and was due to appear in court in Brisbane on Thursday, the police said.

By some metrics, Australia is the biggest consumer of cocaine worldwide. A report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in 2023 found that more than 4 percent of Australian adults reported using the substance over the past year, while the next three countries — Britain, Spain and Austria — came in at under 3 percent.

While the police believe they have the source of the drugs, residents in Sydney may not have seen the last of the cocaine on their beaches.

“Obviously, doing the maths,” Superintendent Telfer said, “we believe there is more out there.”

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