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Undercover police lure businessman to New Zealand ahead of $1.5bn cocaine bust

An Australian businessman crossed the ditch as part of a sting operation carried out by undercover police posing as a drug cartel that claimed to have found large quantities of missing cocaine in New Zealand.

The New Zealand link to the plot to import $1.5 billion worth of cocaine into Australia resurfaced in the sentencing handed down this week in the New South Wales District Court against David John Edward Campbell for conspiring to possess a commercial quantity of cocaine.

The plot was thwarted by police and came to light with the arrest of three men at a hotel in the Serbian capital, Belgrade, in 2018, ABC reported. They were extradited to Australia to face trial.

Campbell was the last of a trio to be sentenced for their involvement. Canberra businessman Rohan Arnold received 27 years in prison in 2020 after pleading guilty to conspiring to import 1.2 tonnes of cocaine into Australia.

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His Canberra business partner Campbell and nightclub boss Tristan Waters faced a two-month trial last year in Sydney, almost six years after his dramatic arrest in Belgrade, the Sydney Morning Herald reported.

A jury found them not guilty of conspiring to import the drugs, but returned a guilty verdict for Campbell on the lesser charge of conspiring to possess a commercial quantity of cocaine.

Serbian authorities found large amounts of cash when they arrested the Australian trio at the Belgrade hotel in 2018. Photo / Serbian Ministry of the Interior
Serbian authorities found large amounts of cash when they arrested the Australian trio at the Belgrade hotel in 2018. Photo / Serbian Ministry of the Interior

Waters had previously pleaded guilty to that lesser charge. He was sentenced last month to 20 years in prison, while Campbell this week received 18 years.

In April 2017, the Australian Border Force found 1.2 tonnes of cocaine hidden in steel beams in a shipping container from China, with a street value of up to $1.5 billion, according to the Sydney Morning Herald.

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Authorities such as the Border Force and the Australian Federal Police then launched what would become a protracted operation, maintaining the deception that the container had disappeared.

An undercover agent pretended to have discovered the missing container in New Zealand in October 2017.

Serbian police arrested the men at a hotel in 2018 before they were extradited to Australia.  Photo / Ministry of the Interior of Serbia
Serbian police arrested the men at a hotel in 2018 before they were extradited to Australia. Photo / Ministry of the Interior of Serbia

He asked for a $3 million finder’s fee. Campbell traveled to New Zealand to meet the undercover agent, who posed as a member of a rival cartel.

The cash was delivered to a hotel in Belgrade, where the three were arrested. Campbell was waiting outside in a car with a gun.

In his sentencing, Campbell’s lawyer said he was “completely expendable, cannon fodder” for the group, in which he occupied a low status.

Sentencing Judge Phillip Mahony said that while Campbell may have acted under duress, that was outweighed by his other actions, including acquiring a gun in Belgrade and voluntarily traveling to New Zealand.

He was given a non-parole period of just over 10 years.

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