The Australian Border Force has uncovered an illicit tobacco crop at Singleton.
An investigation under Operation Bellatrix over many months resulted in a multi agency operation with the assistance of the Hunter Valley Police District, Rural Crime Prevention Team and the Australian Taxation Office in relation to the illicit crop at Bulga on January 13.
The area was approximately 7 acres in size, there was approximately two hectares of illegal tobacco crops and just under a hectare of immature planted seedlings found at the property were seized and destroyed. The tobacco had a potential excise value of more than $9.9 million.
Along with the tobacco crop, also located and seized were seedlings and industrial equipment used in the growing and manufacturing of illicit tobacco, including a planting machine, a tractor, a spray boom and fertiliser.
A 33-year-old Sydney man was arrested at the scene and taken to Singleton Police Station where he was charged with the manufacture of tobacco.
He's been granted conditional bail to appear in Singleton Local Court next month.
ABF Assistant Commissioner South and Enforcement Phil Brezzo says the Taskforce is committed to stamping out both the production and importation of illicit tobacco.
“This operation highlights how the Taskforce works with its law enforcement partners to detect, disrupt and dismantle serious organised crime syndicates that deal in illicit tobacco,” Assistant Commissioner Brezzo said.
“People who engage in the illicit tobacco trade - whether it is growing, importing, supplying or buying black market tobacco - not only put money into the hands of organised criminals, but they deprive the community of tax revenue required to fund essential services such as roads, schools and hospitals.”
ATO Assistant Commissioner Ian Read urged people to report any activity they suspect may involve the production of illicit tobacco.
“Public tip offs build on the intelligence we gather from a range of sources and help us to identify, seize and destroy these illicit crops before they are harvested and sold on the black market. If you suspect that illegal tobacco is being grown or manufactured in your community you can confidentially report it online at ato.gov.au/tipoff or by calling 1800 060 062,” Ian Read said.
“Signs to look out for include intense labour production between November and May, suspicious enquiries about land for lease, unexplained use of water resources and large crops of leafy plants that may resemble kale, cabbage or corn."
“If you see a crop of tobacco, you can be certain it’s not legal. It has been illegal to grow tobacco in Australia for more than a decade. If convicted, growing tobacco carries a maximum penalty of 10 years imprisonment.”
NSW Police Hunter Valley Police District Commander, Acting Superintendent Michael Gorman said these joint operations are greatly assisted by the community coming forward with information.
“The public are our eyes and ears on the ground, if you see any suspicious activity in your neighbourhood and you think criminal activity may be occurring, please contact Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000 or your local police station.” A/Supt Gorman said.
The ITTF is an ABF-led multi-agency taskforce that combines the operational, investigative and intelligence capabilities of the ABF, ATO, Department of Home Affairs, Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC), Australian Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre (AUSTRAC) and Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions (CDPP).
The ITTF also works very closely with state and territory law enforcement agencies.
Tobacco crops are often found in regional areas and usually involve the illegal sourcing of water and power which undermines legitimate farmers and the Government's sustainability measures. Tobacco crops also usually have no regard for local biosecurity which can have an adverse effect on water tablelands and neighbouring properties.
If you suspect that illicit tobacco is being grown you can report it anonymously to the illicit tobacco task force through the Australia Taxation Office on 1800 060 062 or by completing a tip off form through the ATO website.
Image credit: Australian Border Force Facebook page