Home » Australian drug smuggling suspects right at home as Dubai makes world’s worst welcome

Australian drug smuggling suspects right at home as Dubai makes world’s worst welcome

Call it the Melrose Place of international drug trafficking suspects.

There was a time when a small group of unit owners of Sunrise Bay Tower 1, a sleek apartment block overlooking the Dubai marina and boasting private beach access, along with a few of their near neighbours, were allegedly responsible for more illicit drugs entering Australia than at any other period in history.

Three of the Sunrise Bay Tower apartments belonged to the international commander of the Comanchero outlaw bikie gang, Mark Buddle, who in 2022 was charged with drug trafficking and remains before the courts. His old Sydney Comanchero ally, Marco Coffen, a man with strong links to drug trafficking and an armed robbery conviction, also bought in.

Historical title deeds for apartments on levels 20 and 15 link them to Benjamin Pitt and Matthew Battah, who are facing charges in Australian courts of heading their own narcotics cartel.

A short commute from the Sunrise Bay Tower, on the exclusive Palm Jumeirah, the owner of a US$10 million ($15.15 million) waterside mansion in a frond guarded by private security is Australian Hells Angels boss Angelo Pandeli, who reputedly broke down old bikie gang enmities to do business with Comanchero figures like Coffen and Buddle.

Pandeli is suspected of being Australia’s most influential drug trafficker, according to eight serving and former law enforcement officials who spoke to this masthead on condition of anonymity to discuss confidential information.

Mohamed Bousaleh, a close associate of Coffen, and a man identified by Australian crime agencies as one of their priority targets worldwide, is the deed holder of a villa just 15 minutes away. It’s part of an estate abutting an 18-hole golf course and which is marketed under the slogan: “Where life is extraordinary”.

This roll call of the upper echelons of Australian organised crime suspects and their associates appears in a mega leak of Dubai’s property data obtained by a global consortium of investigative journalists, led by the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project and which is working with this masthead and 60 Minutes.

The Palm Jumeirah in Dubai features exclusive gated ‘fronds’.Credit: Bloomberg

The leak reveals Dubai is hosting not only the world’s most powerful drug traffickers, but also other figures, such as infamous Irish crime boss Daniel Kinahan and Othman El Ballouti, a Belgian cocaine kingpin sanctioned by the US in 2023.

Corrupt political and corporate figures unrelated to the drug trade are also in abundance.

They include Australian fugitive Amit Gupta, who Australian authorities say spent millions of dollars bribing politicians in Nauru in return for mining rights before fleeing the Gold Coast and a federal police arrest warrant. This masthead revealed this year that Gupta managed to recently quash the warrant in a Dubai court.

At the Burj Khalifa, Dubai’s iconic skyscraper and the tallest man-made structure ever built, a single apartment links the criminal and corrupt from two far-flung corners of the world: the former head of Equatorial Guinea’s scandal-plagued national oil company – who is also the brother-in-law of the country’s controversial president – rented out one of his apartments to a high-ranking Bosnian drug cartel boss.

In Canberra, authorities are combating the harm to Australia caused by Dubai’s allegedly criminal expatriate community.

Hells Angels figure Angelo Pandeli in Sydney in 2017.

Hells Angels figure Angelo Pandeli in Sydney in 2017.Credit:

Innovative policing and relentless backroom diplomacy by the Australian Federal Police and the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission led to the arrests and deportation to Sydney of Battah and Pitt. Urging from Canberra prompted Turkish and Cypriot officials to arrest or deport figures including Buddle, who is now fighting drugs charges in Victoria.

But Pandeli, who moves between the UAE, Greece and Asia, and his Dubai neighbour Bousaleh, are going strong, according to official sources.

Pandeli’s Palm Jumeirah villa is undergoing a major renovation. Until recently, Bousaleh’s WhatsApp account listed him as “CEO” of several Dubai businesses, including a luxury car firm and a thriving gym.

Both men have been formally designated by Australian agencies as priority targets given the alleged grave harm to national security caused by their suspected involvement in industrial-scale drug trafficking.

Coffen, meanwhile, recently began promoting himself on LinkedIn as “an all-round investor, tech strategist and real estate developer based in Dubai”.

While anti-money laundering experts say the Dubai property data leak will increase pressure on the UAE to crack down on the dirty money and people propping up its economy, former Australian law enforcement officials are less optimistic.

Loading

They say the revelations also underscore the immense struggle faced by state and federal agencies responsible for combatting the flow of drugs into Australian and corresponding surge of dirty money leaving.

Tim O’Connor, a former director of operations at the NSW Crime Commission, spent years tracking figures such as Pandeli and describes the offshore moves as a further indicator of how “organised crime networks have almost perfected the way to bring drugs into Australia”.

“Drug demand in Australia with our current policy is probably not going to abate,” says O’Connor, who is now a criminal defence lawyer specialising in proceeds of crime cases.

“Ultimately, we are a supply-driven market, so overseas syndicates will just keep bringing in more drugs and we will just continue to consume them.”


On November 28, 2002, three masked men burst into a warehouse in Sydney. Two were armed with pistols, the third a baseball bat.

Communicating with walkie-talkies, the trio shepherded the warehouse employees into a room before loading up a van with $1.2 million worth of mobile phones.

The bandits may have gotten away with the heist had their getaway truck not clipped a tree near the home of one of the armed men, spooking a neighbour who called police.

Marco Coffen has a conviction for armed robbery and now spruiks the Dubai property scene.

Marco Coffen has a conviction for armed robbery and now spruiks the Dubai property scene.

The trio were promptly arrested, including a man named in press clippings as 20-year-old unemployed Roselle resident Marco Coffen.

A source close to Coffen at the time describes him as an atypical armed robber accomplice. The source, speaking anonymously, says Coffen was from a middle-class family and obsessed with entrepreneurship books.

“The robberies were about getting seed capital for his later ventures,” the source says. “It was all about money. He just didn’t want to do the hard yards to earn it.”

O’Connor has his own theory.

“A couple of people that I’ve spoken to, who knew him well, said he just liked the excitement of the armed robbery scene. He liked the adrenaline,” he says.

Whatever his true motivation, in the following years, Coffen’s name would feature infrequently in police intelligence files in connection to his involvement in the rapidly expanding Comanchero bikie gang, as well as his suspected links to multiple armed robberies, including a heist which left a security guard, Gary Allibon, dead.

Allibon, 59, was shot in the back in 2010 after he handed over to four armed men a large amount of cash he was transporting.

In 2013, as NSW authorities intensified their investigations into whether Coffen was a member of the stick-up crew, he disappeared overseas and he was never charged. This masthead is not suggesting he would have been charged had he not left the country, only that he was identified as a person of interest.

Still, intelligence about his activities filtered back to Australian agencies. Around 2019, Coffen was identified as running a booming business selling encrypted communication platforms, known as Ciphr phones, that shielded drug traffickers from police phone taps.

The iconic Burj Khalifa skyscraper in Dubai.

The iconic Burj Khalifa skyscraper in Dubai.Credit: The Image Bank

Around the same time, an AFP officer was told by a UAE official of an Australian businessman the Dubai authorities had dubbed the “baby billionaire” due to his youthful appearance and rapidly growing wealth. It was Coffen.

Within months, Australian intelligence reports would name Coffen as a key “facilitator” of the activities of the so-called “Aussie Cartel”, a multi-billion dollar offshore drug trafficking conglomerate exposed by this masthead in 2021.

If his Ciphr business made him impervious to electronic surveillance, Coffen was also intent on making things more difficult for Australian police if they ever sought to pursue him. In 2020, he purchased citizenship from Vanuatu for $US130,000.

Most significantly, he chose to call Dubai home. By the time Coffen, and his tower mates, arrived, Dubai had been transformed from a wind-swept outpost to a global financial hub thanks to policies that enticed foreigners, including laws that made it easy for them to purchase real estate and operate businesses while paying minimal tax.

Today, Dubai’s property market is one of the world’s hottest, with foreigners – who comprise more than 90 per cent of the population – estimated to own over $US200 billion in real estate.

Coffen has his own take on Dubai. In a blog post, he describes the UAE as offering “a vibrant landscape ripe with options” from “real estate ventures” to “the dynamic world of enterprises”.

“Boasting iconic skyscrapers, opulent residences, and state-of-the-art infrastructure, the allure of UAE’s property market is undeniable,” his blog states.

According to experts, the more likely reason suspected crime figures are drawn to the UAE is the historical disinterest of local authorities in the source of funds being ploughed into real estate, as well as the proliferation of underground money transfer businesses that facilitate the cross-border transfer of the proceeds of crime.

The leaked Dubai property records hail from more than 100 datasets and date largely from 2020 and 2022. The records were obtained by the Centre for Advanced Defence Studies, a US non-profit organisation that researches international crime and conflict. The Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project then shared them with more than 75 investigative journalism outlets across the globe.

Loading

From the alleged Australian drug traffickers who own apartments alongside Coffen in the Sunrise Bay Tower, to the relatives of corrupt African dictators and a coterie of sanctioned Hezbollah financiers, the new data reveals how Dubai has opened its arms to unscrupulous characters from all around the world.

Some, such as Isabel Dos Santos, the ultra-wealthy daughter of Angola’s longtime dictator – who has been charged with money laundering, embezzlement and tax fraud, had her properties frozen in several countries and is barred from entering the US – not only own property in Dubai but have been openly seen enjoying the city’s luxuries.

When reached for comment, Dos Santos said she had purchased the Dubai property with income from her private sector businesses, and accused Angolan authorities of a politically motivated agenda.

While the UAE has recently signed a raft of extradition treaties and then extradited hundreds of wanted criminals, including Australian alleged drug traffickers, experts say that process is political.

Radha Stirling, a lawyer and human rights advocate who leads the legal assistance organisation Detained in Dubai, says UAE authorities use high-profile fugitives as “bargaining chips”.

Despite damning evidence of his involvement in corruption and bribery, Australian Amit Gupta convinced UAE authorities to dismiss his Australian extradition request based on a legal technicality. If he ever returns to Australia, he’ll be charged. But from Dubai, Gupta has rebuilt a personal fortune of at least $500 million.

John Coyne, the head of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s strategic policing and law enforcement program, says Dubai remains a safe haven.

John Coyne, the head of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s strategic policing and law enforcement program, says Dubai remains a safe haven.Credit: Alex Ellinghausen

O’Connor estimates Angelo Pandeli’s fortune may run into the hundreds of millions of dollars.

And while Pandeli is not the subject of any known Australian arrest warrant, a mere Google of his name reveals his status as an outlaw bikie gang chief. That didn’t prevent his wife purchasing the couple’s US$10 million Dubai property.

“I would regard him as probably the most powerful member of the alleged Aussie cartel,” says O’Connor, who describes Pandeli liaising with a network of Hells Angels crime cells across the world.

Coffen’s rebirth, from convicted criminal and a named person of interest in a murder investigation to UAE property spruiker, appears emblematic of Dubai’s welcoming attitude to foreign money, regardless of the risk it may be tainted.

John Coyne, head of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s strategic policing and law enforcement program, says Dubai remains a safe haven, even amid increasing arrests and money laundering crackdowns.

As long as violence and drugs are kept out of the UAE, he says Australian suspected crime bosses “can act with a degree of impunity”.

‘Anyone who wants to buy can buy.’

Dubai real estate salesperson to an undercover reporter

“What’s truly intriguing about the UAE is that it’s a gathering point and a point of connection,” Coyne says.

“Organised crime groups don’t go and conduct violent crime in UAE … they go there for business deals. They go there to launder money.”

Emirati authorities have tightened regulations since 2022, when the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), a global crime watchdog, placed the country on a “grey list” for its failures to effectively combat money laundering and terrorist financing.

While the FATF recently declared the UAE had lifted its game, there are reasons to be sceptical.

In March, an undercover Swedish reporter working on the global property leak investigation covertly recorded a salesperson from a major Dubai real estate firm describing how villas could be purchased with “bags of cash” or cryptocurrency and with “zero question[s].”

“Anyone who wants to buy can buy,” the realtor assured the undercover reporter.

John Chevis, a former AFP anti-money laundering specialist, says the leak of property records illustrates the failure of Australian authorities to stop the flow of dirty money to places like Dubai.

Anti-money laundering expert John Chevis.

Anti-money laundering expert John Chevis.

The problem won’t be solved, he says, by Labor’s proposed anti-money laundering reforms.

“There is a lot more that could be done in stopping the laundering of the proceeds in Australia and indeed the payment for the drugs coming into Australia,” Chevis says.

Chevis and O’Connor, along with senior federal and state law enforcement officials who confidentially briefed this masthead, believe the organised crime debate in Australia needs a major overhaul, led by the federal government.

“I think the Australian government is going to have to do much more,” Chevis says.

“The days when we can just try and target the drugs coming physically into our country and hope that we will catch enough to provide some sort of general deterrent, I think those days are gone.”

O’Connor goes even further, urging the politically incendiary subject of prohibition to be canvassed, if only to drive further harm-minimisation policies.

“We as a society probably need to consider our policy on drugs and start thinking about it in a different way. We’ve had the same policy for many, many years and clearly it’s not working,” he says. “Things are getting worse.”

  • Watch 60 Minutes this Sunday at 8.40pm for more.

Get the day’s breaking news, entertainment ideas and a long read to enjoy. Sign up to receive our Evening Edition newsletter.