Australia charges group of 24 mostly Chinese nationals for importing drugs

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Twenty-four people, many of them Chinese nationals, have been arrested in Australia and charged with illegally importing drugs, Australia's anti-money laundering regulator said on Friday (March 18).

The suspects used Australian-based money transfer operators to send funds offshore to pay for the drugs.

News of the arrests comes weeks after Reuters revealed that risks of money laundering and underground fund-transfers were growing in Australia after its major banks quit the remittance business.

"Many of those involved in the importations were Chinese nationals, based in Australia," the Australian Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre (Austrac) said on its website. "The Australian-based suspects used mobile phones and the Internet, liaised with Chinese companies to organise drug importations."

It did not say when the arrests were made or identify any of those arrested or specify what type of drugs were imported.

The suspects transferred funds between A$1,000 (S$1,030) to A$10,000 (S$10,300) from Australia, usually via a remittance dealer, to companies in China. These companies then posted drugs to a variety of names and addresses in Australia, Austrac said.

The Australia-based suspects sent funds to Chinese companies or to "seemingly unrelated" Chinese individuals, making it harder to link the beneficiary in China with the entity that actually sent drugs, Austrac said.

If packages were intercepted, companies in China re-sent the drugs using different sender and recipient information to avoid further detection, it said.

Investigations also uncovered two clandestine drug laboratories, Austrac said, adding police seized 73kg of drugs, 145 parcels, about A$153,000 in cash, counterfeit licences and improvised weapons.

In a separate announcement, Austrac said it cancelled the registration of an affiliate of the US money transfer giant Western Union although it was not clear if it was involved in the crackdown.

The decision by Australia's major banks to quit the country's US$35 billion a year remittance business last year is driving fund-transfers underground and exposing the country as a weak link in the global fight against money laundering and financial crime, regulators, operators who handle remittances and police said.