Sitting quietly in courtroom four of the NSW District Court last week, Nathan Rogers appeared a shadow of the ebullient member of the Bra Boys surf gang who emerged in the media after the Cronulla riots.
In the coverage from 2005, Rogers is pictured grinning and holding a toddler as he preaches peace with leaders from the United Muslim Association. The moment was part of a well publicised effort to calm the tensions that stoked the riots.
"It's about time that we started opening our arms up to each other," Rogers told the media at the time.
Today, his words carry weight for a very different reason: they help describe how the affable, broad shouldered surfer from a notorious Australian crime cell operating from Maroubra beach landed in court alongside members of a Middle Eastern criminal syndicate.
Rogers' story is indicative of the evolution of organised crime. A decade ago, traditional crime groups operating on ethnic or geographic lines began morphing into multinational, borderless businesses that used the latest technology to avoid police detection and was largely run from offshore.
Fairfax Media can reveal a twist in the Rogers story that underlines another insidious threat facing law enforcement: the Bra Boy has suspected connections to a now former federal police officer.
Most Bra Boys are not criminals, but 20 years ago, a small group combined their passion for surf with involvement in serious organised crime, including drug trafficking. Most members of this small, hardcore crime cell had grown up in or around working class Maroubra and had long-standing connections to Port Botany wharfies or baggage handlers and cleaners at nearby Sydney Airport.
In 2002 and 2008, federal police operations disrupted the cell's cocaine importing businesses, which also involved US surfers, airline cleaners and port workers.
In 2012, the federal police and NSW detectives working for a waterfront taskforce codenamed Polaris struck again, arresting several members of a syndicate with links to the Bra Boys.
Police intelligence suggested that a wharfie arrested during this operation had been helping several criminal syndicates "remove prohibited imports from the Sydney wharfs" since at least 2004. Intriguingly, the police files stated that the wharfie was also suspected of tipping off federal authorities about other syndicates - those who didn't pay for his services. The intelligence hinted at someone in the Bra Boys network possibly knowing a law enforcement official.
In February 2014 a separate police operation, codenamed Taipan and run by the NSW organised crime squad, began targeting Nathan Rogers.
The operation was one of the most ambitious and successful organised crime inquiries in recent NSW history. Rogers was just one of three dozen figures identified in a disparate network across Sydney that spanned Lebanese gangsters, Iranian heroin importers and bikies.
Taipan uncovered trafficking involving opium and heroin from Iran, ecstasy and ice from Asia, and cocaine from South America. Rogers was sourcing cocaine from some of the importers and on-selling it. He copied the network's communications methods, using an encrypted BlackBerry mobile phone that could not be intercepted by police. It was only by introducing an undercover operative to Rogers that police managed to intercept some of his text messages.
In one missive, he talked about sourcing cocaine from "my old crew" in an apparent reference to the traditional Bra Boys-aligned crime network. He also arranged plans to meet some new friends.
But when police covertly trailed Rogers to a meeting at a McDonald's restaurant in south-west Sydney on March 3, 2014, it wasn't a couple of cashed up surfers or wharfies who were waiting.
Instead, two bearded members of a notorious and violent Middle Eastern organised crime syndicate allegedly responsible for several Sydney underworld murders agreed to sell Rogers, and a police undercover operative, a kilogram of cocaine for $235,000.
Those two men joined Rogers in the District Court dock last Friday.
Operation Taipan, along with several recent state and federal agency drug busts, shows how police are adapting to the evolution of organised crime. Seizing drugs and making arrests is only part of the strategy, albeit the most visible one.
Agencies are increasingly operating in joint taskforces across borders, seeking to disrupt entire networks by attacking communications and supply chains and tracking money trails to identify new offshore syndicates moving hundreds of drug-filled shipping containers into Australia.
Federal Police commissioner Andrew Colvin is quietly driving this new approach alongside state police commissioners. Senior police say it is working, disrupting and deterring the traffickers who are serving a consumer market whose thirst for drugs means the police strategy operates with no end in sight.
Another vital player is the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity, the small national police corruption watchdog that successive federal governments have neglected when it comes to funding. (Its annual budget is a paltry $11 million and it must partner with the agencies it oversees to carry out complex, expensive operations.) The watchdog is aware of the Rogers case for reasons that have remained a tightly held secret in policing circles.
Intelligence gathered by NSW police previously identified a Sydney-based federal police officer suspected to have had improper ties to Rogers and his associates but who left the force several years ago and moved to Queensland.
This alleged connection, along with recent revelations about a small number of border force and bio-security officers with links to crime syndicates, is indicative of how modern organised criminals are continuing to attempt to infiltrate government agencies.
One low-ranking official with access to Australia's massive law enforcement databases can arguably do as much damage as the networks of corrupt police exposed in the 1980s, who used typewriters instead of computers.
Nathan Rogers will be sentenced with the two Middle Eastern crime figures on Thursday, after they pleaded guilty to drugs charges. It will be just over two years since his arrest marked a small but important footnote in the ongoing struggle between police and those who meet the considerable demands of Australia's drug takers.
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