Friday September 6 2013
– By the time the crippled yacht ran aground on a lonely Tongan atoll, the body on board was so badly decomposed the local police wondered if it would ever be identified.
But that wasn’t the only smelly thing about the case.
The whereabouts of a second crew member was uncertain. Had he or she fallen overboard, bolted in a dinghy or been picked up by persons unknown?
The crew was gone but the cargo wasn’t. Police found 204 1 kilogram blocks of cocaine on board, worth close to $100 million on the street. When the yacht had left Ecuador a month earlier, it was under surveillance. But somewhere between South America and Tonga, the watchers lost sight of the vessel with its fatal payload.
It might sound like the set-up for a Bond film or an Elmore Leonard novel. It’s not. The 13-metre yacht JeReVe is real and it was found in November on the atoll of Luatafito.
Whatever drama had played out at sea had ended in death, disappearance and the seizure of the cocaine – but it’s unlikely that particular shipment would have got through, anyway. If it had made it to Australian waters, the JeVeRe would have been identified, watched and raided as part of an international effort to stop private yachts doing smuggling runs. At least, that’s the theory.
Since Australian Customs and Federal Police joined with American anti-drug agencies and various Pacific nations’ police forces in 2010, they have sprung five yachts carrying almost two tonnes of cocaine. That’s about a billion dollars at street prices. Ocean-going yachts aren’t cheap but for that sort of return, the bad guys seem willing to sacrifice a few.
It happened again a couple of weeks ago when a team of police boarded a yacht called The Raj, moored in Vanuatu’s Port Vila. For the international contrabandits who run come across the Pacific, The Raj is another one that got away.
And for the police who broke open the yacht’s false bottom with sledgehammers, its mysterious backers are the ones who got away , too. Or maybe not.
At least the police are ahead on points with The Raj caper – after all, they found 750 kilograms of cocaine stashed in the keel below a layer of rock ballast neatly covered with concrete.
They are still looking for those who might be able to assist their inquiries about that $370 million “ballast”.
They have a few clues.
One is that the drug runners must have got cold feet a long time ago: the yacht has been growing barnacles in Port Vila for almost two years, under the eye of the international drug-busting posse running the trans-Pacific campaign they call Project Cringle.
By coincidence, or not, one of the Cringle’s team’s early successes was arresting the Spanish crew of a yacht called Friday Freedom after it arrived in Bundaberg in November 2011. It so happens Friday Freedom had come to Queensland via Vanuatu. And it also happened to be carrying 276 kilograms of cocaine.
The glamorous Spanish couple on board won a prize for best costume at a yachtie’s party just before their arrest.
They dressed as pirates, which amused the watching police and Customs officers.
Officers grabbed the couple and two other Spaniards (who visited the yacht) as they wheeled heavy suitcases from the dock to waiting hire cars.
The three men were caught bang to rights but the woman, Julia Maria Boada Fernandez, 38, protested she was a patsy and knew nothing of her shipmate’s scheme. The polite and pleasant señorita told police then (and a jury last month) she thought her Don Juan was fixing a fault in the hull when he was in fact retrieving enough cocaine to supply Sydney and the Gold Coast’s legal, acting and racing identities for a year.
The jury bought the story and a much relieved Ms Fernandez walked from a court in Bundaberg last week. Presumably she will fly home economy class, as sailing can be a little too adventurous.
The case against the three males is rather stronger. All the more so because police found some $3 million cash and a truckload of cocaine when they searched various addresses in Bundaberg, Sydney and the Gold Coast.
Meanwhile, oddly, The Raj seemed to be stranded at its moorings in Port Vila. No one went near it except seagulls.
When an absentee owner in Europe quietly put the yacht on the market this year, police finally decided to make their move.
The yacht was a steal at $200,000, which worried the police chiefs. The idea of innocent buyers sailing into the sunset with $370 million of cocaine made senior officials nervous. And if the buyers were gangster stooges, the scenario could be even worse. What if, for instance, the bad guys met an Australian vessel at night inside Australian waters and transferred the contraband, which could then be taken back to port without having to clear Customs? What if they dropped it overboard in a waterproof container secured to a buoy easily located by GPS?
Those are scenarios the authorities would rather not talk about. And they’re not the only ones who are tight-lipped about messing about in boats.
Talk to colourful fishing and abalone diving identities who might have the skills and nerve to pick to pick up strange things at sea and they scoff at the idea of smugglers roaming the oceans. It’s easier and cheaper to get contraband into the country in ship containers, they say.
An official haul of two tonnes of cocaine in three years says that’s wrong. It poses the question: if that’s what has been intercepted in a sophisticated international operation since 2010, how much contraband floated into Australian ports before that?
Probably shiploads. The Australian record for a cocaine importation is 938 kilograms. That was found in a yacht off Western Australia way back in 2001. There’s plenty more where that came from.
– Andrew Rule