The Chemical Generation's dangerous underbelly

Aja Styles and Chalpat Sonti

November 23, 2010 - 6:01AM


Crime syndicates are evolving to reap the riches of a new wave of drugs hitting the streets. Aja Styles and Chalpat Sonti report

Perth crime networks are growing at a rapid rate as a new wave of designer drugs floods the streets, but police fear a volatile situation may explode as rival gangs seek to wrestle control of lucrative drug markets.

Assistant Commissioner Nick Anticich said the situation was far more complex than in the 1980s, when four established outlaw bikie gangs and some well-known ethnic groups controlled the city's drug trade.

"As Perth has grown that has attracted new players wanting a slice of the pie," he said.

Methylamphetamine, which makes up 90 per cent of drugs seized in the state and has become the main ingredient in ecstasy, is worth three times more in WA than in the Eastern States - $50 a pill compared with $18, and $15,000 an ounce compared with $5000.

The price difference has led to a surge in fly-in, fly-out dealers who catch a plane to Perth for a day to offload their wares, before returning to the eastern seaboard with a fat profit.

"Why would you want to go and work on a mine-site and earn $150,000 a year when you can (earn) it in two weeks? That's the sort of mentality we are dealing with," Organised crime Detective Superintendent Charlie Carver said.

Aside from being flown in, drugs are permeating the state through ports, rail, road and post.

"It's a big country, it's a big state, it's very, very difficult to police," Superintendent Carver said.

At an international level, while the manufacturers make a small profit, importers take the largest share at 60-70 per cent because they pay wholesale prices and are able to control distribution, adding cutting agents to increase volume.

The drugs then filter down through the dealers to the street level, with dealers adding their own mark-up and cutting agents.

Mr Anticich said motorcycle gangs acted as attractive distribution branches for organised crime syndicates because they could easily recruit members and maintain a structured hierarchy, with a president and sergeant-in-arms at the helm.

The few high-end organised criminal identities, scattered throughout WA, operated as legitimate businessmen. They were seen as nothing more than as entrepreneurs by their neighbours, friends and associates, Mr Anticich said.

"A lot of these people have never been convicted of an offence, never seen the inside of a court of law and in some cases have never been charged," he said.

"Every one of the people at the top end of the illicit crime and organised crime scene have legitimate lifestyles or businesses."

This was unlike fully-patched members of motorcycle gangs, who faced a catch-22 if they later tried to reform their image.

"Outlaw motorcycle gang members, interestingly, when they start off to get to the top levels they want to prove they're hard men but once they accumulate wealth and power they try to undergo a metamorphosis to become legitimate businessmen. But they are caught between two worlds - they want two entirely different identities," Mr Anticich said.

WA's bikies

Although rivalry still simmers between the gangs, the days of strict divides between the bikies are long over. Traditionally Caucasian motorcycle gangs are now teaming up with WA-based ethnic gangs from Asia, the Middle East, Africa, the Pacific Islands and New Zealand.

"From my experience of bikies, they're hierarchical conglomerates that get together when they feel like it to deal drugs and also deal in other things such as standovers, extortions, kidnappings and even in some cases murders," Superintendent Carver said.

"Obviously cultures change and people coming into a group change. We've got motorcycle gangs now that don't even ride motorbikes in this country. It's just the whole persona of being a bikie, tough looking in leather and they don't ride bikes."

But the tension is still there. The most recent public outbreaks of violence have been between the Rebels and the Rock Machine, after a Rebels member had his tattoo shop firebombed last week.

In August, the Coffin Cheaters and Finks made headlines after clashing in a brawl at the Perth Motorplex in Kwinana, which saw one Fink shot and three fingers severed from another senior member. Tensions between the gangs centre on high-profile Fink Troy Mercanti, who defected to the gang after being kicked out of the Coffin Cheaters for dealing behind the club's back.

The Finks and Rock Machine are still considered the minnows of the WA bikie scene. Bigger players are the better-established Rebels, Comancheros and Outlaws, all of which have recently established a recent presence in the state.

But it's the traditional big four clubs - the Coffin Cheaters, Gypsy Jokers, God's Garbage and Club Deroes - which still dominate the WA drug market, according to police.

Police are currently maintaining a close watch of all the clubs and their Eastern States counterparts in a bid to avoid any further bloodshed on Perth streets.

The gangs have little to fear from the expansion of backyard drug manufacturers, with underworld sources confirming any perceived threats could be quickly neutralised. Often "torching" of rogue dealers or baseball-bat bashings were used to send a message, and these kinds of crimes were rarely reported.

"Extortion, kidnapping and torture are alive and well and have been used in the past and will probably used in the future. It's basically intimidation fear and murder," Superintendent Carver said.

Methylamphetamine's boom

Although cannabis is still said to be the backbone of the bikies' drugs trade, methylamphetamines have rapidly taken over as the most common drugs seized.

Methylamphetamine use has exploded on Perth streets since the war in Afghanistan, when heroin supplies dried up after the Taliban gave up control of the country's poppy fields, according to Chemcentre forensic analyst Dominic Reynolds. Heroin addicts responded by switching to methylamphetamines, cooked up in dangerous home-made laboratories.

Methylamphetamine use is also rife among gang members and police claim 45 per cent of those dealing in drugs consume them as well.

Police believe the amount of seizures and number of bikies being arrested has forced up the price of methylamphetamines, but this success has also meant more Eastern States clubs were looking to establish chapters in Perth.

Mr Anticich said they were lured here by WA users, cashed up with wealth from the mining boom, who were prepared to pay significantly more for drugs.

"Organised crime goes where there's lots of money and lots of wealth. By reducing the supply, commodities go up even before they get it into the community," he said.

Superintendent Carver said that as long as there was demand for the drug, it would continue to fuel the market.

"We're talking 25- to 30/35-year-old people who just live for the moment and they're not putting anything aside for later on down the track. And those are the type of people getting into the marketplace... not only using them but also getting involved in the selling and moving on because they can see the dollars in front of them," Superintendent Carver said.

"With the cost of amphetamines in this state, it's exorbitant for the average user. Unless you've got a lot of disposable income you can't afford it.

"Hence we've had a 511 per cent increase in clan labs detected last year. That rose from 24 to 125 last year. We're on track now, we've had 115 this year, we've still got six weeks to go - we'll probably hit 130, 135 labs this year."

A history of addiction

While the popularity of methylamphetamine might be a relatively new phenomenon on Perth's streets, the drug itself has been around a long time, with some legitimate uses.

First developed in Japan about 100 years ago, it came into its own in World War II as a way to help soldiers stay alert. Principally used by the Japanese, it was also taken by the German and British forces, as well as US Air Force personnel stationed in the UK during the war. It was to be the start of sustained use of amphetamines by the US armed forces.

A US report into drug use during the Vietnam War found more amphetamines - which differ slightly from methylamphetamines - were consumed than by the combined UK and US forces for the duration of World War II.

It was also prescribed widely in many countries during the 1950s, and is an ingredient in drugs to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in children.

But it was in Japan that crime figures first became involved, thanks to an addiction evolving out of the stockpile built up by the country's armed forces in World War II. Authorities sold the drug before banning it a few years later.

Then the Yakuza criminal organisation stepped in to meet the demand. That spread to other countries, with US gangs getting involved in the 1960s, as the variant known as "speed" grew in popularity.

In Australia, the drug became a favourite among long-haul truck drivers seeking to keep awake and students staying up all night to study for exams. Victoria became the first state to test drivers for methylamphetamines in 2004.

But its popularity has exploded worldwide in the past decade or so, as purer and purer forms of methylamphetamine have been developed.

And while it was originally nicknamed the "poor man's cocaine" in the US, methylamphetamines have been embraced by users across the social strata, with plenty of stories around the world of fortunes lost chasing the highs from the drug. As users become addicted to the drug, they need to use more and more to get the same high.

The drug goes by many names worldwide, including "ice", "crystal meth", "speed", "base", and "P", with the names also giving a clue as to the purity of the drug. However, one thing has stayed constant: the drug's lure for those around the world seeking easy and huge profits.

Every group from the Hell's Angels bikie gang to the Russian Mafia to the Sri Lankan Tamil Tigers has been implicated in manufacturing or selling methylamphetamines.

And as in Australia, many gangs worldwide have realised the need to protect their profits by moving from the image of the "bikie" fighting on the street to low-profile businessmen in expensive suits to try to stay out of the public eye.