PNG’s biggest drug bust: the plane crash, the dead man and the half tonne of cocaine

By Dickson Sorariba in Port Moresby and Ben Doherty Pacific editor

A light plane crashes at an illegal airfield outside Port Moresby: the plane is registered to a dead man, there is no pilot, no passengers, no cargo.

Days later, the biggest drug bust in Papua New Guinea’s history is made: more than 500kg of cocaine.

An Australian man – in PNG without a passport – turns himself in at the high commission.

Police with bags of cocaine allegedly bound for Australia in the transnational smuggling operation
Police with bags of cocaine allegedly bound for Australia in the transnational smuggling operation.

Nearly a week after a Cessna 402C twin-engine aircraft crash-landed in mysterious circumstances at a makeshift airfield in scrubland at Papa Lealea on the outskirts of PNG’s capital, police believe they have uncovered exactly what the plane was doing, and why it had flown into the country.

Police say they believe the plane was involved in an attempt to smuggle a massive quantity of drugs into Australia – so massive it may have crashed the plane – and is evidence that PNG has become a transit point for transnational criminal syndicates.

In an operation involving the Australian Federal Police (AFP), Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC) and the Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary (RPNGC), five men in Queensland and Victoria have been charged with offences including involvement in a conspiracy to import commercial quantities of drugs and directing or assisting criminal organisations. Some charges carry potential life sentences in prison.

One Australian man has been charged with immigration offences in PNG but police say that further charges, related to the alleged drug importation, are expected to be laid against him.

Police allege the Cessna twin-engine took off from Mareeba in Queensland on 26 July, flying illegally at just 3,000 feet above the ground all the way to PNG, in an effort to avoid radar detection.

In a statement, police said it was alleged the pilot attempted to “collect drugs” between 1pm and 2.30pm, local time, on 26 July.

The plane is believed to have crashed while attempting to take off, police alleging “greed played a significant part in the syndicate’s activities and cannot rule out that the weight of the cocaine had an impact on the plane’s ability to take off”.

The PNG police commissioner, David Manning, said the drugs were then hidden.

“We believe the PNG members of this criminal group assisted the pilot and retrieved the drugs from the plane,” he said.

“Police are in possession of information related to the suspected PNG members of the group who have been involved in this criminal activity, including descriptions, unique features and tattoos.”

The syndicate had allegedly prepared a truck with hidden compartments to transport the drugs south from Queensland.

Late on Friday, Manning announced police – using sniffer dogs that detected traces of cocaine at the site of the plane crash – had uncovered 28 bags of cocaine weighing 500kg. With a value in excess of $80m, it is the largest drug bust in PNG’s history.

At a press briefing, Manning said the discovery of the cocaine was confirmation PNG was being used as a transit point by drug dealers.

Two days after the crash, the Australian man alleged to have flown the plane into PNG, David John Cutmore, handed himself in to the Australian high commission in Port Moresby. He has been charged with illegally entering PNG, and fined 3,000 Kina.

Police say Cutmore is expected to face additional charges relating to the transportation of illegal drugs.

One of 28 bags of cocaine. The operation was uncovered after a light plane crashed at a makeshift airfield at Papa Lealea on the outskirts of Port Moresby
One of 28 bags of cocaine. The operation was uncovered after a light plane crashed at a makeshift airfield at Papa Lealea on the outskirts of Port Moresby.

While police believe they have established the rationale behind the clandestine plane flight, there remain unsolved mysteries.

The plane is registered to a PNG company, Ravenpol No 69 Ltd, the sole director and shareholder of which was Geoffrey Bull Paul.

But Paul reportedly died in August last year, stabbed to death in Port Moresby. The plane was registered in the name of his company – of which he is the sole director and shareholder – in January this year, five months after he died.

The PNG prime minister, James Marape, said he was outraged that PNG was being used as a transit point for international criminal syndicates.

“We are not a banana republic where anyone can pick up a plane and just come into PNG unannounced,” he said. “We will have no place for those who think they could peddle drugs in this country.”

Police say the bust will have a major impact on the supply of drugs on Australia’s eastern seaboard.

The Australian Border Force assistant commissioner, Peter Timson, said the organisation remained resolutely focused on the protection of Australia’s borders to prevent illegal drug importation.

“This particularly audacious attempt shows just how brazen criminal enterprises can be, but it also highlights just how effective the law enforcement response can be when we all work together,” he said.

Manning said Australian and PNG police had a long history of working collaboratively to combat transnational crime.

“These arrests send a clear message that PNG will not tolerate transnational crime syndicates using our nation as a transit point for illicit commodities intended for Australia,” he said. “We will continue our joint efforts to see that those involved in PNG are brought to justice.”