The call that brought down an international drug syndicate
ONE short phone call was the tiny spark that ignited a 10-month Federal Police investigation that spanned several continents and brought about an international drug syndicate's demise.
In early 2011, Australian Federal Police officers were investigating an alleged money launderer when they intercepted a phone call between him and another man discussing a person named Jose Hererro-Calvo in connection with the laundering of $4 million.
Arthur Moerman, who at the time was the Detective Superintendent and co-ordinator for the serious and organised crime area in Sydney, said the officers decided to keep an eye on Hererro-Calvo even though he was not their original target.
It was a decision which led to a tale rarely seen outside a Hollywood film and involved 276kg of cocaine hidden on a yacht, a woman's wrongful imprisonment, the arrest of a Spanish drug boss in Brazil, millions of dollars stashed under a bed and finally the imprisonment of three men into the next decade.
Welcome to Operation Avalon.
Led by federal agent Grace Calma, investigators began piecing together the syndicate's main players and what they believed they were up to; something of which they were never 100% sure until months later when, on November 11, 2011, their hard work paid off and they discovered 85kg of cocaine in two cars on Burnett Heads Rd and a further 191kg on a yacht at the Bundaberg Port.
"Working with local and international enforcement, we were able to identify this international syndicate was made up mainly of Spanish nationals and they were using Vanuatu as a point of loading or a meeting point before the yachts would sail into Australia," Det Supt Moerman said.
"Through Grace running that investigation they were able to identify that Hererro-Calvo was in contact with a number of people locally and internationally."
One of those people was Oliver Ortiz De Zarate Martin, a Spanish man who was arrested in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil on June 27 of this year and believed to be a serious player in this crime syndicate.
Ortiz was arrested at his luxury apartment in Rio de Janeiro and about $10 million in real estate and other assets, including seven properties, a nightclub, a Ferrari, a Harley-Davidson motorcycle and hundreds of thousands in cash was seized.
His arrest came after the Brazilian Federal Police were briefed on the information Australian Federal Police had gathered on him during the investigation.
"We believe Oliver Ortiz was part of this syndicate," Det Supt Moerman said.
On Monday, Hererro-Calvo, 40, was sentenced to 18 years jail without a chance of parole for 10 years while his co-offender Miguel Angel Sanchez-Barrocal, 41, received a 17-year sentence without the chance of parole for nine years.
Ivan Maria Ramos-Valea, 37, who sailed the yacht Friday Freedom from Vanuatu to Bundaberg with the 276kg of cocaine on board was handed a 25-year sentence with a non-parole period of 13 years.
The investigation spanned several countries including Vanuatu, Brazil, Spain and Australia and, in addition to the drugs, officers discovered $280,000 in Sanchez-Barrocal's house and $3.7 million under Hererro-Calvo's bed.
Det Supt Moerman said the syndicate used the Port 2 Port Rally to smuggle the drugs into Bundaberg and, shockingly, that it may not have been the first time.
"They used it for the Port 2 Port race and as we allege, we believe there was a previous importation using the same way ... by the same syndicate," he said.
"The actual hide of the drugs was so sophisticated that any search wouldn't find anything unless you drilled in and did a detailed search.
"We don't believe anyone would have found it unless they pulled the boat apart."
The officer said he believed this syndicate had been taken out but there were other operations still out there.
"That would have put a huge strain on the organisation, but then again these syndicates have huge amounts of money," he said.
"Generally the price they purchase it for to what they sell it for is so hugely marked up that they make such a huge profit.
"That's why Australia is a focus for these huge importations.
"Hopefully it does send a message, but for the serious organised crime criminals who are primarily based overseas ... for them the profit outweighs the risk."
However, it seems for the three men sentenced this week the risk is now all too clear as they come to terms with spending the next decade of their lives in a foreign jail.