Australian Police and the Australian Border Force are investigating a bulker vessel that arrived in Newcastle over the weekend after the body of a diver was discovered along the shoreline near packets believed to be cocaine. Authorities said the port had been under observation as a point of risk for drug smuggling but they are puzzled by the odd circumstances of this situation leading them to believe it is part of a larger smuggling effort.
The 60,000 dwt bulker Areti arrived in Newcastle on Sunday, May 8 after a voyage from San Lorenzo, Argentina. The vessel, which is registered in the Marshall Islands, is transporting a load of soybean powder and was routinely inspected during its arrival.
Monday morning, the police were called to the harbor on reports of a diver found unconscious along the shoreline. Efforts to resuscitate the diver were unsuccessful and he was pronounced dead at the scene. Police immediately noted the unusual circumstances of the man believed to be a foreigner wearing a wetsuit with sophisticated driving gear. They said that he had a high-tech rebreather that does not emit air bubbles and typically is used only by a very skilled diver.
They also discovered yellow packages around the harbor which on examination they said appeared to contain cocaine. So far, they have retrieved 50 kg valued at A$20 million (US$13.8 million) while the search is ongoing on the shoreline, harbor, and the bulker. The police speculated to the media without explaining their reasoning that there could be a total of A$100 million (US$70 million) in cocaine involved.
Police divers were in the harbor on Monday inspecting the hull and the area around the 656-foot vessel and believed to be searching for signs of a sea chest possibly containing the drugs. They also reboarded the vessel which is being detained to interview the crew in more depth for possible involvement in the smuggling.
A review of surveillance footage from the harbor shows that two small boats, one an inflatable and the other a small aluminum boat, approached the bulker overnight on Sunday possibly attempting to locate the drugs.
“There’s evidently more people involved than the dead man,” Superintendent Rob Critchlow of the New South Wales Police Force told local reporters. “As most people would realize, people don’t scuba dive alone.” They were unsure why the operators of the boats abandon the diver and the drugs, possibly leaving him for dead or to die on the shore. A search of police databases failed to identify the dead man.
This morning, Police said a man linked to the death of the diver and the discovery of $20 million worth of cocaine in Newcastle has been arrested trying to flee the country from North Queensland.
A manhunt was launched to find others suspected of involvement in the alleged large-scale drug importation attempt and, yesterday, a 62-year-old man was arrested at an airport in Queensland.
Queensland Police and Australian Federal Police officers stopped the man as he tried to board a plane to Singapore about 5:30pm.
It is believed up to 300kg of cocaine was allegedly imported into the country strapped to, and stashed inside, the Areti GR Majuro, which arrived from Argentina on Sunday.
Police are still searching for 200kg of the drug, saying they think they’ve only found a “portion” of the full shipment.
Investigators also suspect the dead diver, who was wearing specialised scuba gear, had arrived in the country illegally.