Three men have been arrested in London after £44 million worth of MDMA was found hidden in an excavator when the machinery was shipped to Australia.
The boom had been lined with lead in a bid to conceal 450 kilos of the Class A drug but the 226 packages were revealed by an X-ray machine on March 15.
The excavator was shipped from Southampton to the Port of Brisbane but was destined for Sydney.
Danny Brown, 53, and German national Stefan Baldauf, 60, were arrested in Putney by National Crime Agency (NCA) officers on June 15, while Peter Murray, 57, was held outside his home in Greenwich on October 1.
All three have been charged with conspiring to export Class A drugs, while Baldauf was also charged with illegal entry in breach of a deportation order, and the men are due to appear at Kingston Crown Court on January 15 next year.
Australian Federal Police (AFP) arrested two men, aged 33 and 42, in Sydney, who have also been charged.
Investigators believe a London-based crime group were importing drugs into the UK before exporting them to Australia in heavy plant machinery.
The alleged plot was uncovered as part of Operation Venetic – the UK investigation into the EncroChat encrypted messaging platform which was shut down by the authorities in June.
Chris Hill, senior investigating officer for the NCA, said: “This was a global conspiracy to import huge amounts of Class A drugs into the UK, then out to Australia.
“Through close working with our Australian partners and analysis of encrypted messages recovered as part of Op Venetic, we were able to uncover this highly organised conspiracy and prevent the criminals behind it from making millions in illicit profits.
“In the UK, this amount of MDMA could potentially make close to £18 million. In Australia, profits would have been even higher – 79 million Australian dollars (£44m) if sold on the streets.”
Canberra-based Mark Bishop, head of the Asia and Pacific region for the NCA, said: “The AFP are a key partner in this effort and their ongoing support is vital in disrupting those international crime syndicates with links to Australia and the UK.
“Throughout Operation Venetic alone, we have jointly seized two tonnes of cocaine, MDMA, and methamphetamine headed to, or in, Australia this year.”
Bruce Giles, AFP’s assistant commissioner southern command, added: “Organised crime groups seek to move illicit goods in bulk whenever they can and however they can.
“In this case they thought that hiding the drugs in machinery would be innocuous enough to avoid detection by Australian authorities.”