A Canadian man was arrested in Australia and accused of being a representative of a “high-level transnational organized crime syndicate” that imported 645 kilograms of ecstasy cleverly hidden inside a shipment for barbecues.

The Canadian flew to Australia a week ago and the day after he arrived went to a warehouse to inspect the cargo, police allege. Unbeknownst to him, however, the shipment had been intercepted by Australian authorities, the drugs replaced with fakes and officers lay in wait.

Laert Kasaj, 33, of Thornhill, Ont, north of Toronto was arrested Monday.

He is one of two men arrested so far in the large probe.

“We’ve been able to ascertain that this is truly an international syndicate — that the drugs came from Cyprus, we have inquiries in the U.K., we have a man who’s come from Canada and we’ve arrested a person in Brisbane,” said Kirsty Schofield, commander of the organized crime division of the Australian Border Force.

A shipment of 645 kilos of ecstasy was found hidden in the false bottoms of barbecues which led to the arrest of a Canadian man.

Australian Federal Police

The investigation began in July when the Cyprus Drug Law Enforcement Unit tipped Australian authorities to a suspicious incoming shipment that had already departed the port of Limassol in Cyprus for Sydney.

The Australian Border Force intercepted the shipping container when it arrived on July 17, 2019. Inside were 200 aluminum barbecues. X-rays revealed that many of them had a false bottom aluminum plate. Packages of a brown crystalline substance were found under the false bottoms.

In an attempt to conceal it, the packages had been vacuum sealed (likely to reduce odour to avoid drug-sniffing dogs) and lined and layered with carbon paper (likely to interfere with X-ray penetration).

The substance was found to be MDMA, commonly known as ecstasy, and weighed 645 kilograms, authorities said.

The drugs were removed from the barbecues and replaced with an inert substance and police monitored the shipment’s delivery to its destination — a warehouse in a suburb of Sydney.

It sat there, untouched and ignored, for more than three months.

Schofield wouldn’t say why investigators think it was not picked up for so long, saying it was “sensitive” information. It’s possible they were waiting for approval of the Canadian or perhaps the syndicate was trying to make sure police weren’t watching it.

In any event, starting in October, the barbecues were gradually moved to a second warehouse in an industrial suburb of Sydney. An Australian man from outside Brisbane — about 900 kilometres up the coast of Australia — arrived and started to remove the packages of purported ecstasy and prepare it for further distribution, police said.

It was then that the Canadian man arrived in Australia.

Kasaj flew to Sydney from Toronto, arriving on Dec. 10, authorities said. He traveled on a tourist visa.

The next day he went to the industrial warehouse. He was there “to inspect the barbecues,” said Schofield.

“We will allege in court he was sent by the syndicate responsible for the MDMA to check on aspects of the importation,” she said. He was also described as a liaison for the syndicate.

A shipment of 645 kilos of ecstasy was found hidden in the false bottoms of barbecues which led to the arrest of a Canadian man.

Australian Federal Police

He was arrested Monday near Brisbane as he got off a ferry after a day trip to visit Bribie Island. Also arrested was a 30-year-old Australian man. Simultaneous raids and search warrants were executed in Australia, Britain and Cyprus.

Police seized Aus$100,000 (about $90,000) in cash at the apartment of the Australian man and $200,000 (about $180,000) and 3.5 kilograms of cocaine in another residence.

In Britain, “persons of interest” were identified.

The Canadian man was charged with one count of aid, abet counsel or procure an imported border controlled drug. The maximum penalty is life imprisonment.

Danielle Yannopoulos, New South Wales commander of the Australian Border Force, said there was enough ecstasy in the shipment to press into 2.2 million pills, which, if sold at street level, could generate Aus$61 million, which is about $55 million.

At the ABF we’ve seen it all

“At the ABF we’ve seen it all. We’ve seen it hidden in highlighters, hot chili sauce; we’ve even found it in an excavator and a bunch of cowhides. So not much surprises us these days,” Yannopoulos said.

A shipment of souvenir snow globes from Canada was recently seized in Australia when the liquid inside the glass was found to be dissolved methamphetamine.

“We understand the complexity and the sophistication of transnational and serious organized crime and that’s exactly why law enforcement agencies are banding together across domestic and international partnerships to fight the war on drugs.”

Authorities said the investigation is ongoing and more arrests are expected, including arrests abroad.

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