AUSTRALIAN border security officials are helping organised crime syndicates smuggle multimillion-dollar shipments of illicit drugs and other contraband into Australia.
Australian law enforcement agencies are investigating more than 24 Customs and Border Protection officials for corruption or misconduct - suspected offences include drug trafficking and leaking sensitive information.
The revelations put pressure on the federal government as it confronts calls from the opposition for an independent inquiry into customs and the failure to stop drugs and weapons being imported into Australia.
An Age investigation into the scale of corruption in border security agencies can reveal:
■Taskforce Polaris - a joint state and federal inquiry into maritime organised crime in New South Wales - is investigating more than 20 allegations involving corrupt government officials, such as customs employees and licensed customs brokers.
■The corruption watchdog has received more than 50 files on suspected corruption involving customs officials since early last year.
■Customs has suspended or sacked 15 of its officers since 2010 over misconduct or corruption allegations, including an official with close ties to a Sydney-based Middle Eastern crime family and an official caught by NSW police snorting cocaine off the boot of a car.
Some senior officials are now privately discussing the need for a royal commission into organised crime in the maritime and aviation sector.
Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare yesterday conceded more needed to be done and flagged anti-corruption reforms.
The officials under investigation for aiding drug or tobacco traffickers are suspected of tipping off syndicates when their container is to be examined, suggesting methods to avoid detection and leaking top-secret information.
The revelations follow concerns by government and police about the ability of the watchdog, the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity, to combat the problems with its small budget, handful of investigators and limited jurisdiction.
''ACLEI is unable to do what is needed,'' a well-placed policing source said.
ACLEI has no power to scrutinise agencies, including the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS), suspected by police of harbouring corrupt officials.
This year, the Gillard government rejected a recommendation by a joint federal parliamentary committee to give ACLEI oversight of AQIS.
Mr Clare told The Age he had ordered a review of ACLEI's oversight of customs and had written to the heads of the Australian Crime Commission, Australian Federal Police and Customs Service seeking their advice on how to make their organisation more corruption resistant. Opposition customs spokesman Michael Keenan said the government's budget cuts- which have claimed 340 customs staff and nearly $60 million from the agency since 2010 - were inflaming the problem. "There are so many opportunities for criminals to probe into weaknesses in the customs system," he said.
In a statement to The Age, ACLEI said the 55 referrals it had received since January last year about customs involved ''an allegation or information that raises a corruption issue''.
Among the tainted officials is a customs investigation officer who resigned last year after being suspended over his suspected association with a Lebanese crime family in Sydney.
The links between the family and the official were scrutinised after a joint-agency probe codenamed Tempest - which was inquiring into illegal tobacco imports in late 2010- found dozens of leaked customs files at a house of a member of the family.
The family has relatives or close associates working as federal government-licensed customs agents, for freight companies and in licensed wharf storage facilities.
Late last year, a joint agency probe code-named Tuskers charged two contraband traffickers with attempting to bribe a customs official. The same contraband traffickers are suspected of having ties with two other border security officials.
Customs said it had brought in reforms to combat corruption, including increased background checking and training.
It said it had suspended 15 staff for various offences including ''possession of narcotics, lack of integrity, misuse of commonwealth resources'' and associations that raised security concerns.