Drugs: The big win that proves we lose

adl060213.001.003   Tony Mokbel leaves the Supreme court on his way to the County Court. Pic Andrew De La Rue The Age Melbourne. DIGICAM COURT Photo: Andrew De La Rue
adl060213.001.003 Tony Mokbel leaves the Supreme court on his way to the County Court. Pic Andrew De La Rue The Age Melbourne. DIGICAM COURT Photo: Andrew De La Rue

Eleven years ago this weekend, a fellow called Tony Mokbel wandered out of the South Melbourne police station after reporting on bail and disappeared, sparking a worldwide manhunt and one of Australia's biggest organised crime investigations.

It would involve Greek sailors, a bad wig and an inside man. And it led to cracking a sophisticated drug ring known as The Company, which had an estimated turnover of $400 million and was capable of corrupting police and ordering murders.

This is the story of how a small taskforce named Purana was able to show that no matter how big the syndicate, it remains vulnerable to a properly resourced investigation. It also shows that with the right backing and the ability to seize tainted assets, taskforces can actually enforce the law and make a profit.

But it is also a story that shows that no matter what police do, or how tough our politicians talk, we are doomed to lose the so-called war on drugs.

Mokbel is living (if captive) proof the profits are so vast and the market so big there will always be those prepared to run the risk of jail to make almost unimaginable fortunes.

The only real question is why are there so many gangsters so stupid they are prepared to shoot each other over turf wars when there is enough out there for everyone. It makes as much sense as squabbling over a car park space when you have just won the lottery.

How Mokbel built a drug empire from the ground up shows that you don't need to be a criminal genius to be a crime boss and that police alone will never be the answer to a problem that is of our own making.

Mokbel, a battling student, left Moreland High School at the age of 15 to work as a dishwasher, a waiter and then a nightclub bouncer. In 1984, then aged just 19, he bought his first business - a modest Rosanna milk bar. For two years he and his future wife Carmel worked seven days a week before selling without making a profit.

In 1987, he bought a Boronia pizza parlour, the first of more than 20 apparently legitimate businesses he used to wash drug money.

He was able to grow at the time because police dismissed him as a lightweight, even writing in his criminal file that he "lacked financial acumen". Yet his wealth quickly exploded. In 1995 he had known assets of $128,000 - six years later he was worth $15 million.

A later psychological report found he was "semi-literate with a very limited degree of formal education". The truth is he was ambitious, imaginative, a quick learner and amoral. For him, it was just about supply and demand and he saw the demand for drugs was massive.

In 1997, a Mokbel drug lab worth a then record $78 million exploded in a Brunswick house. It was only a minor setback and within three years he had learnt to spread the risk.

He had cocaine arriving in Australia on November 10, 2000, a shipment of chemist-grade ephedrine from Serbia landing days later, as well as 350,000 ecstasy tablets coming in the following month.

The figures are staggering: the Serbian container of 550 kilograms of ephedrine had a wholesale value of $20 million and could be used to produce 40 million pills with a street value of $2 billion.

Although he was charged over the Serbian job, he finally jumped bail in 2006 during his trial on an unrelated cocaine importation. The reason? He had been leaked statements that implicated him in two underworld murders.

And while he was prepared to do a few years over the cocaine charges, he wasn't prepared to risk a life sentence for murder.

His subsequent movements have been well recorded. For nearly a year, he hid at a mate's place at Bonnie Doon before buying the 17.4-metre yacht Edwena???, importing a Greek sailing crew, and relocating to Athens where he continued to run his Australian drug syndicate.

In the beginning, Purana didn't even bother to look for Mokbel, for the investigators had a more ambitious plan than just to drag Tony back to face existing charges.

They wanted to destroy his empire piece by piece using the mantra "Investigate, Identify and Dismantle".

It was only in April 2007 that Purana began to seriously look for Mokbel in an operation code-named Magnum. The taskforce's breakthrough came when they persuaded a trusted insider to turn.

The informer, officially known as 3030, came to Purana through a curious route. He was a professional musician who once played in a band with a serving policeman. He reached out to the cop - who brought him in.

Mokbel's clean phone was identified and tapped, along with those of his deputies. One of their drug cooks was persuaded to work for Purana, allowing detectives to set up a perfect sting operation.

Eventually, Tony was tracked to the Athens suburb of Glyfada and arrested at the Delfinia Cafe on June 5 wearing a bad wig and a carrying a doctored Australian passport in the name Stephen Papas. Nine years ago today (March 18), following an 11-month extradition battle, the Greek Supreme Court ordered his return to Australia.

Captured Victorian fugitive Tony Mokbel stares out from a photo pinned to the wall at the Victorian Police Centre in Melbourne, Wednesday June 6, 2007. Convicted drug baron Mokbel, one of Australia's most wanted fugitives, was arrested yesterday in Greece. (AAP Image/Simon Mossman) NO ARCHIVING

Captured Victorian fugitive Tony Mokbel in his wig. Photo: AAP

He was acquitted of one murder charge and the second was withdrawn but, due to the overwhelming evidence gathered by Purana's Magnum, he was forced to plead guilty to multiple drug charges and in 2012 was sentenced to 30 years with a minimum of 22.

Purana investigator Detective Sergeant Jim Coghlan??? seems to have spent half a career investigating Mokbel and he was there when his man was arrested in Greece.

Coghlan wanted more than just getting the pinch and, along with other experts, spent years finding $54 million of The Company's hidden assets.

As a result, authorities seized 54 residential properties, two farms, 30 cars, Edwena the yacht, a Caulfield horse stable, country hotel, Brunswick market, Sydney Road car park, Boronia pizza parlour, four jet skis, 75 per cent of the racehorse Pillar of Hercules, cash, jewellery and three million Linc Energy shares, which the crooks bought at 20 cents and the government sold at $2.

Purana destroyed a massive drug syndicate and provided a template on modern investigation, which relies on a multi-agency co-operation, turning insiders and identifying tainted assets.

The arrest and conviction of Mokbel's team proves good policing works. It also proves that as far dealing with our drug issue, it is the equivalent of trying to bring down a charging bull elephant with a pea shooter.

Since Mokbel was jailed, the flow of drugs has only grown. He brought them in by containers; now syndicates have their own ships. He was a smart local entrepeneur; now Australia is targeted by international cartels, well aware we pay the highest prices in the world. The truth is we are worse off now than when Mokbel was grabbed 10 years ago.

And yet we continue to provide police with extra resources to slow supply while doing little to deal with demand. For every extra dollar we spend on drug law enforcement, we should spend the same on rehabilitation and education. The fact we don't have an effective anti-drug advertising campaign is a disgrace.

Mokbel's arrest ended Victoria's eight-year Underbelly War but the void was immediately filled by the next generation.

Only the names change.

Naked City's Wickedpedia: Where are the main Underbelly players now?

Edwena: The 17.4-metre ketch Mokbel bought for $323,000 to sail from Fremantle to Greece. Renamed St George, it was finally sold for around $30,000.

Carl Williams: An unemployed supermarket shelf-stacker who was making $100,000 a month manufacturing drugs until he went to war with the Moran clan. Ten years ago last month, he was sentenced to a minimum of 35 years for three murders. Eventually agreed to become a prosecution witness hoping to make a deal. Bashed to death in prison in 2010 almost certainly on the orders of his former pal Rocco Arico.

Roberta Williams: Carl's ex-wife is now suffering from money problems and attention deprivation. Once paid to appear on television, she is now just a relic of another time.

George Williams: Carl's father and business partner. Lucky not to be charged with the April 2003 murder of drug rival Nik Radev. After serving a stint for drug trafficking, he tried to keep a lower profile, which didn't stop his Broadmeadows house getting shot up in 2015. Died of natural causes last year.

The Musician: Informer 3030 was the key figure in the arrest and conviction of Tony Mokbel. Paid the bulk of the $1 million reward money for fingering Tony. Left his band and given a new identity.

Tony Mokbel: Suffered a heart attack in prison, has lost weight and is now a vegetarian. Has settled into prison life but finds the mindless routine incredibly boring. Lost his money, family and freedom. Would have been better off sticking to making pizza.

Tony Mokbel's wig: No longer of evidentiary value and now kept at the police museum.

This story Drugs: The big win that proves we lose first appeared on The Age.