Steve Burchall, writing under a pseudonym, is a law enforcement officer with more than fifteen years’ experience in covert investigations targeting organised crime networks in Australia and internationally.
With the economy still reeling from the effects of COVID-19, the pandemic-proof drug trade might look like an attractive option. Problem is, the drug underworld doesn’t use LinkedIn, so how do you break into the business
You don’t start out as a street dealer and work your way up; dealers are expendable bottom-feeders and rarely get promoted. If you want to land a high-paid position in the illicit drug supply chain, you’ll need an introduction to the mafia and outlaw motorcycle gang bosses who mainly handle major drug imports in Australia. You’ll need to show you have the know-how and networks to manage your part in an arrangement, and that you have sufficient capital to buy in to a deal. Acting the tough guy won’t get you anywhere; they want to see professionalism and competence.
If they like what they see, you’ll join a rainbow coalition of Australian, European, Asian, Middle Eastern and, increasingly, West African crime organisations, along with a menagerie of bikies. It’s a myth that criminal gangs hate each other and won’t work together; they regularly pool resources and collaborate on bulk imports of drugs supplied by the international cartels.
In the drug trade, the supplier is king, not the customer. The cartels have no shortage of prospective buyers, and they can afford to be selective about who they supply to. They can’t afford not to be choosy, as a bungled operation could place the entire network at risk of exposure. The cartels will drive up prices or withhold supply if they suspect they’re dealing with idiots, and this is why, if you want a place at the table, you need to present as sensible and smart.
It’s much easier for us to get an undercover operative a seat at the negotiating table. We use informants to facilitate introductions, and we have enough background knowledge and resources to pass off our operative as a seasoned drug-trade professional.
Virtually every newsworthy drug bust owes thanks to an informant who told us where to look, but in covert operations, our informants do much more than just provide information. Informants work closely with us to disrupt and even infiltrate their own organisations. Criminal organisations make the consequences of betrayal abundantly clear to their members; informants know the risks but do it anyway. A high-risk lifestyle comes with the territory of being a criminal, and some informants are certifiable danger-junkies.
Informants often decide to help us when they find themselves in trouble with the law, in exchange for a degree of leniency. This isn’t necessarily the best situation to work with if the informant’s troubles are common knowledge, because a relatively light slap on the wrist raises suspicion. Some informants approach us of their own volition, perhaps with an aim to screw things up for a rival within their own gang, or to disrupt a competitor’s business, or to draw police attention to one scheme as a diversion from a bigger operation. Sometimes they’re just disgruntled employees looking to shake things up.
"Criminal organisations make the consequences of betrayal abundantly clear to their members; informants know the risks but do it anyway."
Establish a reputation
Old-fashioned word of mouth is the criminal world’s LinkedIn, and we exploit this reliance on reputation and personal relationships to infiltrate criminal networks. The classic approach begins in consultation with the informant – let’s call him Darryl – to identify a key individual to be removed from play. Darryl then reports intelligence from his ‘sources’ that this key person has attracted police attention, and he and his associates will have to sit things out until the heat blows over. This leaves the syndicate short-handed and nervous. We then fill the gap with an undercover operative, introduced to the syndicate and vouched for by our good friend Darryl.
This strategy is simple, but it takes time and resources to set up. Darryl can’t simply turn up one day with a ‘friend’ nobody has heard of before, so we start laying the groundwork months or even years before our operative is introduced. We’ll invent a fabricated contact in the drug trade for Darryl – perhaps an overseas relative, or an old comrade living interstate. Never the cliché of an old prison buddy; it’s too easy to check. For this story, let’s call this fictional character ‘Uncle Bob’.
We coach Darryl to visualise Uncle Bob in detail: what he looks like, where he lives, what he drinks, how he talks, and a plausible occupation and status for Uncle Bob in the criminal network. Uncle Bob can’t be such a major player that people should have heard of him already, but he should have enough status to be worth name-dropping occasionally. Darryl’s task is to casually mention Uncle Bob in conversations with his cronies, often enough and over enough time for this non-person to become a familiar figure. We’ll also feed Darryl useful pieces of inside information to boost Uncle Bob’s reputation as a well-connected individual.
When the time is right to bring in the undercover operative, Darryl might introduce him as someone he doesn’t know personally, but a reliable bloke Uncle Bob has recommended. Or we might orchestrate a chance meeting between Darryl and our operative – with plenty of witnesses present – where they exchange anecdotes about good old Uncle Bob. It’s a con as old as the hills, but it still works.
Sometimes it works so well that Uncle Bob ends up a wanted man. When the criminals get caught and explain their story to their lawyers, the defence team demands that police haul in Uncle Bob, the linchpin of the whole deal, for questioning. When this happens, we just say sorry, can’t find him.
Despite the risks, informants often have a lot of fun on these jobs – sometimes a little too much. A few months after we had finished working with one particular informant, he called us and said, “I’ve got us another job, fellas”. He’d fallen in with a new gang of crooks and had been talking up a contact by the name of ‘Aggro’. Our intelligence people had heard about this ‘Aggro’ and everyone was trying to figure out who he was. Turns out, Aggro was supposed to be me. Boofhead had enjoyed his work with us so much that he’d decided it would be fun to go freelance, setting up covert operations. We advised him to stick to his day job of being a crim.
It is possible to infiltrate an organisation without the help of an informant. In one operation, our undercover operatives simply walked into a certain pub flashing wallets stuffed with cash. A few insinuations were made about the sort of people who deal in paper money these days, which our boys neither confirmed nor denied; they just smiled and said they were in the ‘import business’. They made sure everyone noticed their (convincing fake) luxury watches and let the rumour mill do its thing. They turned up regularly at the pub whenever they were in town on ‘business’, with much conviviality and shouting of drinks.
They soon made friends with a bikie who was messy enough in his personal life to be grateful for their generous company, but still connected enough to be useful. The untidy bikie helpfully put us in touch with the targets we’d been looking for, without ever realising he was assisting the police. That poor, messed-up bikie really loved our boys: he let them sit on the sacred Harley he kept in his lounge room, and he still texts to ask when they’ll be back in town again.
"That poor, messed-up bikie really loved our boys: he let them sit on the sacred Harley he kept in his lounge room, and he still texts to ask when they’ll be back in town again."
Maintain your credentials
Criminal organisations use corrupt officials to conduct background checks on new players. Our undercover barflies in the ‘import business’ carried cards for an ASIC-registered company we had set up, complete with a professional-looking website and an import history that took some time to establish. As a result, the Australian government owns a container of unremarkable products that is regularly imported, unloaded, reloaded and sent back around the world (via a separate export company we set up at the same time) all for the sake of maintaining a paper trail for a fake drug import business.
It’s easy to get caught up in all this subterfuge. At one stage of that particular operation, we heard that customs had intercepted our container. One of the undercover boys was extremely agitated by this news, until I reminded him there was nothing to worry about; customs wouldn’t find anything because we’re not actually importing drugs.
So there you have it. If you’re smart and capable, with good people skills and some initiative, you could find opportunities in drug-related criminality. But if you’ve got all that going for you, I suggest you sit tight and wait for the legitimate job market to recover instead, because a drug lord’s career really isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. But that’s a story for another time.