Inside the take-down of a major Albanian mafia marijuana operation

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An unassuming family home in Melbourne’s north-west is at the heart of a wave of drug crime and violence that has been sweeping Australia.

The facade is perfect, a well-kept house with a neatly trimmed yard. Even the bins have been carefully put out on the footpath.

Viper officers entering a grow house in Greenvale. Credit: Eddie Jim

The giveaway is the stench. The unmistakable smell of cannabis leaks out from inside, spreading to the street.

When police smash through the door, marijuana plants the size of Christmas trees are found growing in thickets in almost every room in the house.

The find itself is not unusual given Melburnians insatiable taste for the bud. In 2019, it was estimated about 35 per cent of Victorians had used cannabis in their lifetime and about 11.5 per cent used it in the previous year.

What’s different about this house is that these crops have been underwriting the rise to power of the Albanian mafia, which has in turn flooded Australia with drugs and unleashed a wave of violence.

Dozens of cannabis plants seized from a grow house in Taylors Lakes.Credit: Eddie Jim

It was just one of five grow houses taken down this week by Victoria Police’s elite anti-gang strike unit, Viper, as part of an operation to disrupt funding of the Albanian mafia.

These raids seized one tonne of cannabis worth at least $5 million – money which could have been used to fund serious criminal activity.

Viper taskforce detective Acting Inspector Leigh Howse said Albanian crime syndicates were increasing their foothold in Australia’s cannabis and illicit drug markets.

“What we’ve seen in the last 10 years in Australia is a significant appetite for drugs of dependence, in particular the rise of cocaine and methamphetamine,” Howse said.

“Intelligence that were in possession of indicates that the commercial cultivation of cannabis, the profits derived from it, are utilised within serious and organised crime groups to fund drug importations.”

Police intelligence obtained by The Age indicates Albanian organised crime is staging a takeover of large-scale marijuana cultivation, pushing out smaller and less violent groups.

The funds from these operations are being used to flood the Australian market with cheap cocaine, a move that police believe is linked to shootings, bashings, and firebombings with rivals in outlaw motorcycle gangs like the Comancheros.

Howse said the grow operations disrupted this week were highly sophisticated, allowing syndicate members to grow hundreds of plants inside confined spaces.

The syndicate is suspected of using professional facilitators such as experienced electricians to set up the network of grow houses and bypass the electricity system.

In one of the properties, the syndicate drilled through the concrete floor of the garage to run a power cable underground and connect it to the power substation in the block next door.

Police and power company workers called in to disconnect the set-up said they had never witnessed an operation this sophisticated.

“This is impressive,” a power company worker said. “It’s very dangerous. If things go wrong they go wrong big time.”

Viper officers inspecting the site where suspects had run a cable underground to bypass the electricity system.Credit: Eddie Jim

The raids led to the arrest of a man suspected of being the kingpin behind the clandestine operation and a woman suspected of working as a “crop-sitter” for the syndicate. Both are foreign nationals who entered Australia on temporary visas.

This masthead has previously revealed how Australia’s immigration system has been exploited by Albanian criminal syndicates, who often use fake identification to enter the country and build powerful criminal enterprises.

The man, a 47-year-old Albanian citizen living in Australia on a bridging visa, has been charged with five counts of trafficking a large commercial quantity of cannabis and possessing proceeds of crime, after officers uncovered about $200,000 in cash during the raid.

Police suspect the woman, a 44-year-old Colombian national on a student visa, had been hired to mind a grow house in Deer Park, where the syndicate was cultivating almost 200 cannabis plants. She has been charged with cultivating and trafficking a commercial quantity of cannabis.

Acting Inspector Leigh Howse says Albanian syndicates are increasing their foothold in Australia.Credit: Eddie Jim

Howse said “crop-sitters” were usually brought into Australia with the purpose of working in the grow houses.

“There are individuals … involved in organised crime that are obviously exploiting conditions within our visa system to overstay and be involved in these types of activities,” he said.

“Commonly, we’re seeing people on student visas and or bridging visas, who are in the process of applying for permanent residency.”

The pair fronted Melbourne Magistrates’ Court separately for a brief hearing on Wednesday morning. The man did not apply for bail and was remanded in custody.

The woman was released on bail on the condition that she did not leave Victoria or associate with the co-accused.

They will return to court next year.

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