Tobacco stores across the state's west have been searched as police target people allegedly linked to the Finks and Comanchero outlaw motorcycle gangs (OMCG).
The VIPER Taskforce conducted six searches of tobacco stores in the state's west, including Horsham, Stawell, Ararat, Warracknabeal, and Nhill.
Police will allege a 40-year-old Williamstown man was delivering illicit tobacco to a Horsham store.
His vehicle was then searched, and illicit tobacco, e-cigarettes, and $40,000 cash were seized, police said.
He was interviewed and is expected to be charged on summons.
It was part of coordinated national police operations On Thursday, November 23, and Friday, November 24, targeting people police said were linked to the Finks and Comancheros.
Police across Australia have arrested 25 people, executed 12 search warrants and 22 firearm prohibition orders (FPOs) searches, and seized approximately $200,000 in cash and firearms.
Victoria Police arrested seven people statewide and seized more than 134,000 illicit cigarettes, 43kg of loose tobacco, and 3655 vapes from the businesses, believed to be valued at over $350,000 in total.
A conducted energy device and baton were also seized.
Victorian arrests on National Day of Action
In Victoria, this operation formed part of the ongoing investigation by Taskforce Lunar into organised crime syndicates, including the Finks, linked to illicit tobacco.
Operational activity was also conducted in New South Wales, Western Australia, Queensland, Tasmania, the Australian Capital Territory, and the Northern Territory.
Detectives from the Echo Taskforce served three firearm prohibition orders on patched Finks members, seizing 200 vials of steroids during a search at a Glen Waverley address.
A 36-year-old Glen Waverley man was charged with drug offences and bailed to appear at Ringwood Magistrates' Court on 21 May 2024.
Compliance searches were conducted on Finks firearm prohibition holders in Berwick, Southbank, Ascot Vale, Metung, Lucknow, and Ringwood.
A small quantity of cocaine and steroids were seized from the Southbank address, while cannabis and knuckle dusters were seized from the Lucknow property, police said.
A 35-year-old Southbank man was charged with drug offenses, commit indictable offence whilst on bail, and contravening a conduct condition whilst on bail.
He was remanded in custody to appear at Melbourne Magistrates' Court on 8 February 2024.
A 24-year-old Lucknow man was charged with drug and weapons offences and bailed to appear at Bairnsdale Magistrates' Court on 17 April 2024.
Search warrants were also executed at premises in Chelsea Heights, and Churchill linked to the Comanchero OMCG, with police locating three firearms.
A 41-year-old Churchill man, who police say is a patched member of the Comancheros, was charged with prohibited person possess firearm and remanded in custody to face Melbourne Magistrates' Court on 19 December.
A 46-year-old Chelsea Heights man is expected to be charged on summons in relation to a rifle and shotgun found at his address, police said.
As part of Taskforce Lunar's investigation, the VIPER Taskforce has conducted over 60 searches of tobacco stores across the state since the beginning of October.
At this time, Taskforce Lunar investigators believe the current situation is a result of criminal syndicates in conflict due to competition for profit derived from the illicit tobacco market.
Police believe the syndicates are comprised of personnel from Middle Eastern organised crime groups and Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs, including the Finks.
The current conflict includes the physical placement of illicit tobacco into stores and demands for stores to sell the syndicate's illicit product and pay a 'tax' per week to operate.
This dispute has led to a series of over 30 incidents over the past eight months, predominantly arsons or attempted arsons predominantly linked to tobacco stores in both metropolitan Melbourne and regional Victoria.
On the majority of occasions, no one was present at the business when it was set on fire; however, almost all of the fires caused significant damage.
Luckily, no one was physically injured during the fires, with the exception of several offenders who have set themselves alight.
Four patched members of the Finks were also charged in June with a range of offences in relation to the alleged extortion of a business owner in Eltham.
A significant investigation into the series is underway with Taskforce Lunar drawing on a range of specialised resources from the Gang Crime Squad, Arson, and Explosives Squad, Echo Taskforce, VIPER Taskforce, Criminal Proceeds Squad, and Financial Crime Squad.
The task force is also working closely with regional police and a range of external agencies such as the Illicit Tobacco Taskforce, the ABF, the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission, AFP, and ATO.
Investigators continue to appeal to anyone, especially store owners and staff, who has information about these incidents and who is responsible to come forward.
Police appeal for public's help.
Anyone with information about these incidents or with further information about illicit tobacco is urged to contact Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000 or submit a confidential crime report at www.crimestoppersvic.com.au
"There has been an immense focus on illicit tobacco and associated offending here in Victoria, particularly in relation to the reckless and dangerous arson attacks and firearms-related violence," Acting Commander Jason Kelly, Crime Command, said.
"We created Taskforce Lunar to lead that investigation, and they have been working closely with a number of specialist units as well as regional police.
"The operation this week has been about putting pressure on those organised crime groups we know are linked to illicit tobacco, no matter what state they are in or what part of the state they are in.
"Regional areas are certainly not immune to this type of offending, and those committing these offences in rural locations will absolutely face the same scrutiny.
"We are still seeing these arson attacks occur and tobacco stores involved in the selling of illegal products, despite the significant publicity this investigation has received.
"Again, I want to be clear that police will continue to do everything we can to target those criminal syndicates involved and those who are choosing to benefit from fear and harm to the community.
"We will continue to conduct these operations across Victoria and also work closely with other states to disrupt this criminal activity and hold those involved to account."
New South Wales Police planned operation on Thursday, November 23
Police from the New South Wales Police, State Crime Command's Raptor Squad executed five Firearm Prohibition Order (FPO) compliance checks of alleged Finks members across Mascot, Peakhurst, Bossley Park, and Kellyville, where they seized prohibited drugs and a prohibited weapon.
Detective Acting Superintendent Adam Powderly said the NSWPF has extensive capabilities to disrupt OMCG activity and continue working closely with law enforcement counterparts.
"This day of action highlights the strong collaboration between our jurisdictions in targeting the criminal activities of OMCG and their alleged members.
"OMCGs are not confined to one particular city or state, and illegal behaviour by OMCGs will not be tolerated in the city, in the country, or across the border," Det A/Supt Powderly said.
"Raptor Squad will continue working closely with counterpart agencies in coordinated, cross-border operations to disrupt any illegal OMCG activity and ultimately prevent any harm to the community."
Queensland Police Service Detective Superintendent Troy Pukallus OCCG said Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs have a propensity for violence, have established transnational serious and organised crime networks, and have a significant footprint in the distribution of illicit commodities.
"In response to these illegal activities, the Organised Crime Gangs Group within QPS remains committed to enhanced national coordination and collaboration through its participation in national days of action.m" he said.
Under Victoria's Tobacco Act 1987 (the Tobacco Act), smoking and the use of e-cigarettes (vaping) is prohibited in all enclosed workplaces and specific public spaces where members of the public gather. This is because there may be exposure to second-hand tobacco smoke and the aerosol (vapour) from e-cigarettes.
In early May 2023, the Australian Government announced groundbreaking reforms to protect future generations from the harms created by Big Tobacco and the vaping industry.
In September 2023, it was announced that this included banning the retail sale of all single-use, disposable e-cigarettes.
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