For 11 months the Australian Federal Police had their eye on a group of alleged big-time drug smugglers.
Along with investigators from the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service, their every move was monitored until last night when it was decided the time was right to pounce.
Eight search warrants were executed around Sydney and seven men - four Hong Kong nationals and three men from Sydney's western suburbs - were arrested last night for smuggling a record half-tonne haul of heroin and ice into Australia. The 558-kilogram haul has an estimated street value of A$500 million (NZ$650 million).
The drugs - among the largest amount ever seized by the police and border security agents - were stashed in terracotta pots and arrived in Sydney nearly two weeks ago, addressed to a warehouse in Sydney, police said.
Police believe the drugs were destined not only for the streets of Sydney but elsewhere in Australia.
The tip first came from the US Drug Enforcement Administration nearly a year ago. It led to a sophisticated surveillance operation across several countries.
In January, Customs and Border Protection identified the individuals in Australia they believed were associated with the international syndicate.
The deputy chief executive of Customs and Border Protection, Mike Pezzullo, said they covertly learnt what the shipment might look like and roughly when it would arrive.
On July 19, two large shipments of 3200 terracotta pots arrived at Port Botany and were examined by customs officials.
An X-ray showed that 100 pots held a combined total of 306 kilograms of ice and 252 kilograms of heroin shrink-wrapped in loaf-sized packages, police said.
The pots were then filled with putty and put in cardboard boxes.
Mr Pezzullo said the method of concealment was a fairly "unsophisticated".
"They were brazen," he said.
The federal police's Deputy Commissioner of Operations, Andrew Colvin, was confident they had smashed the drug syndicate although an investigation was still under way and more arrests would be made.
"Countless lives would have been affected had this seizure made its way to Australian streets," Mr Colvin told reporters in Sydney today.
"Whether it be the users, the healthcare workers that deal with drug issues each and every day, or the family that has been torn apart through illicit drug use."
All seven men - aged between 29 and 61 - will face Central Local Court this morning on a number of charges including conspiracy to import methamphetamine and heroin and attempting to possess a commercial quantity of methamphetamine and heroin.
The charges carry a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.The operation represents the largest single seizure of ice in federal police history and the federal police's third-largest seizure of heroin.
Despite an increased number of drug seizures in Australia, Deputy Commissioner Colvin said there were not more drugs reaching our shores. Rather, the police were getting better at working with other agencies at home and abroad to make more arrests, he said.
“This operation follows the AFP's most successful year in terms of drug seizures. In the 2011/12 financial year, the AFP and its partner agencies seized almost 14 tonnes of illicit substances bound for drug distribution networks across Australia,” Deputy Commissioner Colvin said.
Last financial year was the most successful year for the AFP with a haul of more than 14 tonnes of illicit drugs and more than $100 million worth of assets, he added in a statement.
- Sydney Morning Herald