Australian authorities say they have arrested the money man behind an audacious plot to smuggle three tons of cocaine into the country.
Former Sydney restaurateur Mostafa Baluch, 33, is described by prosecutors as the “sole financier” of a conspiracy to import one of three drug shipments with a total street value of almost US$700 million.
Baluch is the fourth suspect arrested in the investigation. Police uncovered the scheme after an alleged member of the gang, Mende Rajkoski, was observed gambling around US$77 million in one week on slots at the Star Casino in Sydney.
Authorities probed Rajkoski’s finances and discovered what they have described as “a significant transnational organized crime syndicate.”
Acting on information from Australian police, the US Navy in October intercepted two boats off the coast of Colombia carrying 870 kilos of cocaine. In April, the US Coast Guard seized a further 900 kilos from a boat off the coast of Ecuador.
New South Wales police organized a sting operation, building a replica of the haul, which they delivered to a storage facility in Sydney. They arrested Rajkoski as he attempted to collect what he thought was the drug shipment, police said.
Two accomplices, Nikolao Misa, 37, and Gjelosh Nikollaj, 58, were detained shortly afterward.
According to The Sydney Morning Herald, Baluch is the son of Afghan immigrant parents, who launched a successful restaurant business in Sydney’s northern beaches. Baluch himself owned the Cervo restaurant in the Northbridge suburb of the city. It closed several years ago.
Police said when they raided his home on June 3, they found A$62,700 in cash, four mobile phones, a small amount of cocaine and steroids, and US$12,000.
Baluch has been charged with conspiracy to import a commercial quantity of a border-controlled drug, drug supply, dealing with the proceeds of crime, and possessing anabolic steroids, among other offenses.
He appeared at Sydney’s Central Local Court on Wednesday and was refused bail.
Australia’s financial intelligence unit AUSTRAC recently announced it had broadened the scope of its casino money-laundering investigations beyond Crown Resorts to include the Star Sydney.
Crown has been accused of shirking its anti-money laundering (AML) responsibilities in pursuit of profit, and of doing business with junket operators with links to organized crime.
The issue of casino money laundering has come into hard focus lately because of regulatory investigations into Crown’s operations. which followed several high-profile exposés in Australian media.