Mexican drug cartels on a mission to expand their networks are actively pursuing once unreachable countries like Australia to peddle illicit drugs and firearms. It sounds like a script for a Hollywood crime thriller but a new report has revealed this is the harsh reality our island nation must face. The findings come as anti-gun lobbyists and Green-leaning politicians continue to criticise theft from licensed owners for contributing to a growing black market, while seemingly overlooking real threats to Australia’s very own national security.
Signalling an end to the “tyranny of distance”, the Mexican Drug Cartels and Dark-Networks: An Emerging Threat to Australia’s National Security study revealed that Mexican cartels are now crossing the Oceanic divide and selling illicit wares to local organised crime groups, even providing “sweeteners such as handguns and other arms” to grow their outlawed businesses. Maritime smuggling through our ports was found to be “lucrative”, with our porous borders something the SSAA has long warned both sides of government about.
Authored by the University of Canberra’s Dr Anthea McCarthy-Jones as part of the Strategic & Defence Studies’ The Centre of Gravity Series, the report comes after an Australian Federal Police (AFP) counter-narcotics operation in 2010 found cartels were indeed targeting Australia. The new report confirmed that even with concerted efforts by Mexican officials to curtail drug corridors and crack down on outlawed activity in their own country, the cartels have continued to grow and have turned their eyes Down Under.
Less than a month after the report was published, the AFP and Australian Border Force (ABF) seized around 140kg of methamphetamine and arrested four people for drug importation offences. The sea cargo was said to have arrived in Sydney from Mexico. At the time, AFP Commander Chris Sheehan said: “The size of this seizure is an indication that organised crime groups are still seeking to target Australian users and the high price those users are willing to pay for these drugs.”
The price consumers pay for illicit drugs was identified as a key “pull factor” in the Dr McCarthy-Jones report. Pull factors, or reasons that attract dealers to Australia, are also influenced by shipping costs. But in a globalised world with “rapid economic growth and growing affluence of many nations in the (Asia Pacific) region”, countries like Australia have “produced a larger demand for illicit drugs than ever before.” As the author points out, the supply of illicit wares to local crime groups “poses a number of threats to Australia’s national security.”
“Reports suggest Mexican cartels provide local criminal groups with illegal handguns and other arms in order to ‘sweeten’ their business dealings... these incentives create further domestic security problems for Australian law enforcement as local criminal groups are increasingly able to access new sources for the supply of illegal firearms,” the study notes. The study also found that the cartels “do not favour a particular local criminal network in Australia... they appear to deal with any local criminal organisation that is in the position to regularly receive their large consignments.” The report does call for further investigation into whether the Mexican cartels “have established permanent franchises in Australia”.
However, the findings do show that maritime trafficking “has increased and is now the key method of transportation for large consignments.” A study by the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission found that around 70 per cent of Australia’s serious and organised criminal threats are based offshore or have strong offshore links, making importation a real threat. Serious and organised crime cost the nation $36 billion in lost economic opportunity, including the cost of policing and prevention attempts in 2013-14. $1.5 billion of the $36 billion is attributed to illicit commodities including firearms.
Recent news reports have added to concerns indicating that “high-quality copies of US Colts” are now available on the black market in South-East Asia with concerns these could end up in Australia. The Coalition announced a series of funding commitments to crack down on illegal firearms peddled by organised crime groups, with $3 million for the Victorian arm of the National Anti-Gang Squad (NAGS); $6.2 million for the Western Australian NAGS and around $25.4 million for the AFP to increase firearms intelligence and forensic capabilities.
But the question needs to be asked: are we doing enough to protect our borders from illicit firearms entering unchecked? Reappointed Justice Minister Michael Keenan said the recent funding announcements aim to “boost intelligence collection on international firearms trafficking and... identify previously unknown links between firearms traffickers and their suppliers, customers and illegal activities.”
“We know that modern technologies such as the dark web are enabling organised criminals to expand their reach globally and exert significant influence over Australia’s black market,” he said. “Now... (we will) crack down on the illegal firearms market, particularly through the international mail system, including the forensic examination of firearms, firearms parts and accessories, and the establishment of a new team of specialised forensic scientists and criminal intelligence analysts.”
The SSAA Legislative Action (SSAA-LA) department welcomed moves to combat the real threat of illegal firearm imports, rather than the tired old approach of targeting the law-abiding firearms community who pose no threat to public safety. SSAA National President Geoff Jones stressed that adequate resources need to be invested in border security. “The SSAA has long pointed to organised crime syndicates as key suppliers of illicit firearms to the black market and encourages moves by the Coalition to disrupt these groups,” he said. “The latest report showing cartels are transporting their illicit wares by sea is a reality our authorities must face and gives further credence to our argument that law enforcement desperately need more resources to target the real problem.”
While law enforcement and governments grapple with the emerging new threat of cartels and expansion of outlaw crime groups, the SSAA-LA will ensure stopping illegal imports remains on the agenda while challenging those who unfairly link firearm owners with criminal activities as a basis for further restrictions. The path forward is clear: shutting down criminal syndicates dealing in illicit firearms is a matter of national security and will see huge public safety benefits. Targeting law-abiding firearm owners is a time-consuming waste of precious policing resources that fails to address the bigger issue of unchecked and illegal imports.