View attachment 23714 AN INTERNATIONAL crime syndicate headed by Colombians allegedly bribed the Speaker of the Tongan Parliament as part of a plot to import tonnes of cocaine into Australia.
The Herald can reveal an Australian Federal Police-led inquiry, Operation Stair, uncovered a global trafficking operation that allegedly used yachts to sail cocaine from South America to Tonga.
The drugs were then allegedly smuggled onto container ships and transported to lucrative markets in Australia and China.
Late last year, the syndicate allegedly bribed the Speaker of the Tongan Legislative Assembly, Lord Tu'ilakepa, who is also a Tongan noble, to sponsor a Colombian drug boss to come to the Pacific island.
The drug boss, Obeil Antonio Zuluaga Gomez, wanted to direct an alleged operating hub from Tonga and oversee cocaine shipments.
It is alleged Australians, Tongans, Colombians, Peruvians and West Africans played different roles in the global conspiracy, along with corrupt maritime industry figures.
Assistant Commissioner Kevin Zuccato, who is leading the AFP's anti-organised crime operations, told the Herald Operation Stair showed the globalised and technologically savvy threat posed by modern criminal syndicates.
''The fact that you see an organised crime group from Colombia and Peru actively engaged in places like Tonga and then moving that narcotics to Australia … is just another example of how large and sophisticated these groups are,'' he said.
Operation Stair arrested and charged four people in Australia last year over an alleged conspiracy involving two alleged shipments - 190 kilograms and 500 kilograms - of cocaine. While several members of the syndicate have been arrested in Tonga and China, no cocaine has been recovered.
Tapped phone calls reveal the Colombian-led group sought the help of Lord Tu'ilakepa late last year to help Gomez get a visitor's visa.
In a letter to the head of Tonga's Immigration Department, the Tongan politician wrote that ''I, Lord Tu'ilakepa, Noble of the Realm and Speaker of the Legislative Assembly of Tonga would sponsor the visa of Obeil Antonio Zuluaga Gomez.''
Gomez has been previously imprisoned for drug trafficking.
Lord Tu'ilakepa is highly influential in Tonga and, in August 2009, hosted an Australian parliamentary delegation, which later thanked him in a parliamentary report. According to the report, ''Lord Tu'ilakepa … was deeply indebted to the Australian Parliament'' for the multimillion-dollar aid packages given to the Pacific island nation.
Despite having never met Gomez, Lord Tu'ilakepa wrote that he would ''guarantee that I will be providing the necessary housing and financial support to this person [Gomez] and take full responsibility for him during the duration of his stay''.
''I can also vouch that the aforementioned is an honest, trustworthy and law abiding person.''
As a result of a series of raids in Tonga prompted by Operation Stair, Lord Tu'ilakepa was charged with drugs and weapons offences this year although, until now, his alleged role in the global conspiracy has remained a secret. Lord Tu'ilakepa remains a serving MP.
The Colombian-led syndicate is the second international crime group to set up in Tonga in the past 18 months, in a trend in which organised criminals use nations with weak institutions and corruption.
Nick McKenzie, Richard Baker
December 17, 2011
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