Australian Customs and police said Friday they had seized 4.4 tons of ecstasy tablets worth nearly A$400 million, describing it as the biggest haul of the illicit drug anywhere in the world.
Police said the seizure of the drugs, which were concealed in tins of tomato shipped to Australia from Italy, had resulted in the arrests of 21 people across the country beginning in pre-dawn raids.
Authorities had worked for more than a year to track the syndicate behind the drugs after Customs discovered the ecstasy hidden inside some 3,000 tins, each weighing about 1.5 kilograms, in June 2007.
Customs officials replaced the ecstasy with an inert substance and monitored the consignment but the arrests were brought closer two weeks ago when a coffee bean shipment carrying 150 kilograms of cocaine was detected in Melbourne.
Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mick Keelty said the drugs were part of a global syndicate and the seizures would be "a major disruption to transnational organized crime, both in this country and abroad."
The ecstasy haul, estimated to be worth at least A$440 million dollars (U.S.$394 million had been kept secret until now to allow the Australian Federal Police (AFP) and Customs to carry out their investigations.
"There have been 185,000 telephone intercepts in this operation, there have been 400 members of the AFP deployed to this operation, there have been 10,000 hours of surveillance deployed to this operation to find the perpetrators of this world's largest seizure and importation into our country," Keelty said.
Keelty said Australian and European police were attempting to stop the syndicate from trafficking and that search warrants had already been issued in Belgium and the Netherlands.
"It is classic organized crime and we have done our best to shut down the syndicate," he told reporters.
Keelty said the syndicate was allegedly still able to traffic drugs even though it had lost the massive 4.4-ton shipment, underlining the apparent demand for illicit substances in Australia.
"There are not many boardrooms in Australia where you would write off half a billion dollars worth of a commodity or a product and continue your business," he said. "What we have to do is reach out to the youth of the country and reduce demand."
Keelty said related searches in Europe had already uncovered large amounts of cash and a cache of firearms.
Meanwhile, the Australian investigation had also identified a money laundering operation worth more than $9 million.
So far, 13 people had been charged with a range of offenses in Australia, including conspiracy to import ecstasy and precursor chemicals, an Australian Federal Police spokeswoman said.
Customs chief executive Michael Carmody said the bust was the result of "small snippets of information."
"This is a great result. This is what makes getting up in the morning and coming to work worthwhile," Carmody said.© Wire reports