Landing Australia’s largest heroin haul in the past 12 months, customs officers in Sydney uncovered 24 kg of heroin inside a consignment of fish paste from Cambodia, anti-narcotics police said Thursday.
The $14.5 million stash was uncovered at Sydney’s main container port on Wednesday when customs officers—using high-tech sea container X-ray equipment—discovered the narcotics hidden among 358 boxes of fish paste, Agence France-Presse reported.
Phnom Penh anti-narcotics officials said the heroin bust was one of the largest ever discovered with links to Cambodia.
The cargo of fish paste—or “prahok” in Khmer—and heroin was destined for a seafood company in Sydney.
Police arrested a 32-year-old Vietnamese man who arrived to collect the cargo, AFP reported.
Australia’s Minister of Justice and Customs Chris Ellison said that the state-of-the-art detection equipment was installed just last month and that the drug shipment was its first big catch in that port.
“This is the first drug detection using the X-ray facility and the biggest heroin seizure made in Australia in the past 12 months,” AFP quoted him as saying.
A representative of the Australian Federal Police in Phnom Penh confirmed the bust but deferred further questions to Canberra.
Interior Ministry anti-narcotics police officers said they were unofficially informed of the heroin by Australian police and the US Drug Enforcement Administration office in Bangkok.
Lour Ramin, deputy secretary-general of the National Authority for Combating Drugs, said he had not been officially informed of the discovery.
“I believe that exporting this big amount from our country is a considerable issue,” Lour Ramin said.
Cambodia suffers from “loose” law enforcement, and international criminals are taking advantage of the country, he added.
The heroin find has also occurred during an assessment visit from the International Narcotics Control Board, whose members met Wednesday with Deputy Prime Minister and co-Interior Minister Sar Kheng.
Earlier this year the INCB—an independent UN body—voiced concern that Cambodia and North Korea remain the only two countries in East and Southeast Asia that have not yet agreed to any international drug-control treaties.
Cambodia is also still a producer of cannabis and “large amounts of heroin are also smuggled through China, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam,” the INCB said in a recent report.
Australia was one of the foremost destinations for heroin produced in the Golden Triangle region, located in the lawless border regions between Thailand, Laos and Burma, the INCB said.
Cambodia has increasingly been named as a major conduit for heroin shipments from the Golden Triangle. However, until Wednesday’s seizure, none of the alleged large heroin shipments have ever been interdicted, either passing through Cambodia or at their destination country.
Wednesday’s bust “shows clear evidence that heroin is being trafficked through Cambodia. There has been a lot of rumors, but this is the first clear example,” said Graham Shaw of the UN Office for Drugs and Crime.
“It also raises a lot of questions about its origination and Cambodian involvement in the transshipment of heroin and links with organized crime in Australia,” Shaw added.
The bust may also again focus attention on the Mekong River smuggling route, which some officials warned could boom as result of Thailand’s draconian war on drugs.
In its 2001 intelligence brief on Cambodia, the US DEA said heroin enters Cambodia from Laos and Thailand.
The heroin from Laos can be of either Laotian or Burmese origin, and is usually smuggled by boat on the Mekong River into Stung Treng province, the DEA said.
It is subsequently transported to Phnom Penh for sale or international transshipment, or to Vietnam for redistribution, the DEA said.
Last year, an Australian court sentenced Chieu Tran Van, 40, to five years in jail for posting more than 2 kg of heroin from Phnom Penh to addresses in Brisbane.
Three Cambodian-born New Zealand men were also convicted of importing heroin they had posted from Phnom Penh to Auckland.
And a Cambodian-born Australian man was sentenced to 22 years in prison in Thailand on charges of supplying heroin. He was arrested in 2001 after falling sick in the Bangkok airport during a stopover between Phnom Penh to Australia. Balloons containing 24.1 grams of heroin had burst in his stomach.