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Customs officers 'aid drug courier'

Date

Nick McKenzie and Richard Baker

EXCLUSIVE

Couriers moved drugs through Singapore.

Couriers moved drugs through Singapore.

Authorities have swooped on a courier accused of importing drugs with the alleged help of Sydney Airport Customs officers amid fresh revelations that some of the drug mules involved in the scandal risked the death penalty by moving drugs through Singapore.

Among other developments in the growing Customs corruption scandal, a Fairfax investigation can also reveal that up to four Customs officers suspected of involvement in serious corruption remain working at the airport.

Also still working at the airport are a small number of suspected corrupt baggage handlers who have links to alleged drug trafficker Joseph Harb and are holders of federal government Aviation Security Identity Cards.

The arrest on Saturday of the courier brings to 10 the number of alleged drug traffickers, including two Customs officers and a quarantine official, so far charged as part of a major probe into drug trafficking, money laundering and bribery involving a small group of Sydney Airport Customs staff.

The courier is facing drug-trafficking charges and is the sixth drug mule to be arrested since August last year. The couriers are accused of helping to import millions of dollars worth of drugs into Australia since at least 2009.

It's understood that anti-corruption investigators from the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity, along with their federal police counterparts, are planning to make several more arrests in the coming months.

Fairfax - which reported the existence of the corrupt airport cell last December - can also reveal that most of the suspected corrupt Customs staff have been identified as belonging to a small team of officers who worked shifts together at Sydney Airport.

Because this team of officers worked in the same international passenger checking team, known as a ''stream'', they were able to work together to move bags filled with contraband past the various security checks required at the airport.

On at least one occasion, it's believed a courier transited through Singapore airport with his load of drugs before flying into Sydney. Drug mules caught at Singapore airport risk the death penalty.

The suspected corrupt Customs officials also advised couriers on how to move large bundles of drug money out of

Australia, in breach of laws that require any cash amount over $10,000 to be declared to Customs. Some of the money earned from the drug sales has gone to the coffers of the Comanchero outlaw bikie club.

It appears that an alleged ringleader of the group would wait until certain Customs staff were working the same shift before giving the green light for couriers to pass through the airport after flying from overseas destinations with their drug loads. This happened around every three months.

Staff who were not initially corrupt were convinced by this ringleader to perform certain tasks in return for payments of several thousand dollars.

A serious challenge for the multiple agencies working on the Customs probe, code-named Operation Marca, is dealing with officials who may not be charged due to insufficient evidence but who are strongly believed to have still engaged in corruption or serious misconduct.

As many as 20 officers from Sydney airport may fall into this category.

Another major challenge for the investigation will be finding enough evidence to arrest senior organised crime figures, including a well-known Sydney Lebanese crime boss, who are tied to the corrupt cell but have kept at arm's length to avoid detection.

The two Customs officers so far charged by Operation Marca are Adrian Lamella and Paul Katralis, who have both been remanded in custody on serious drug trafficking and corruption charges.

Katralis is re-appearing in court today.

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