Mr Lee, 65, is allegedly a senior member of the 14 K Triad – one of the world’s most powerful crime gangs – and is suspected to have conducted international drug trafficking activities over three decades, generating billions of dollars in revenue.
He is also the alleged right-hand man of billionaire Tse Chi Lop, who has been dubbed Asia’s El Chapo in reference to Mexico’s most-famous cartel boss. According to police, Mr Lee and Mr Tse fulfilled various roles within The Company’s multinational structure.
The Australian Federal Police has linked The Company to an ice distribution network in Sydney and Melbourne operating between 2009 and 2013, a record 903 kilograms seizure of methamphetamine in April 2017 and, six months later, another record drug shipment bound for Western Australia. In December 2019, the AFP intercepted another drug shipment from Bangkok: 1.6 tonnes of methamphetamine and 37 kilograms of heroin worth an estimated $1.2 billion.
Mr Tse was arrested in late January en route to Canada at the request of federal police after he was deported from Taiwan.
The arrests of Mr Lee in Thailand and Mr Tse in the Netherlands are among the most significant in the history of the federal police’s efforts to counter organised crime with the help of drug enforcement agencies across Asia, Europe and North America.
Official sources said they signal the determination of federal police Commissioner Reece Kershaw to revitalise the agency’s attack on transnational organised crime, which generates tens of billions of dollars every year in Australia.
Mr Kershaw elevated the combating of organised crime alongside countering terrorism and foreign interference in his 2020 National Press Club address.
While former prime minister Kevin Rudd’s declaration in 2008 that organised crime was a national security priority was heralded at the time by federal and state police agency chiefs as a long overdue recognition of the damage wreaked in Australia by transnational crime syndicates, the fight against organised crime has mostly struggled to get the attention and resourcing of successive federal governments.
This is despite persistent warnings from local and international security agencies that offshore crime groups corrupt government agencies in Australia and overseas, undermine stability in nations with weak governance and engage not only in drug trafficking and money laundering, but human trafficking, cyber crime and weapons smuggling.
Mr Lee has been on the radar of Australian police for almost 40 years. In the 1980s, he was arrested in NSW over a suspected heroin importation in a case that collapsed after a co-accused was found dead in jail.
The federal police’s drug taskforces investigated Mr Lee again in the 1990s and early 2000s, and he is also suspected to have helped set up the 14 K triad drug hub in the Netherlands that flooded Europe with heroin sourced from the Golden Triangle in south-east Asia.
Mr Tse and Mr Lee are suspected to have been jointly involved in multiple billion-dollar drug importations into Australia over several decades and their pending extraditions come 25 years after the pair were arrested by the FBI for smuggling heroin into New York.
Official sources involved in international drug enforcement and who are not authorised to speak publicly said both Mr Tse and Mr Lee had connections to senior officials in Asian countries, including a minister in Taiwan and powerful officials in Thailand.
In December an associate of the pair, Triad boss “Broken Tooth” Wan Kuok Koi, was blacklisted by the US. The government, which barred him and his family from any dealings with the US financial system, alleged Wan had attached his extensive criminal operations to the Chinese government’s Belt and Road infrastructure initiative.
The case against Mr Lee will rely on hundreds of phone conversations intercepted by the federal police as part of an operation codenamed Volante, as well as statements from federal agents about how they cracked a complex “cipher” code used by The Company.
The code was allegedly used by Mr Lee while he was based in Hong Kong in 2012 to instruct Australian syndicate members about what phone numbers to call to receive money laundering or drug trafficking directions.
In the 2016 Melbourne court case of a local drug supplier, federal agents referred to a man called “John” – who was allegedly Mr Lee – who told his Australian associates to describe heroin as “Mr A,” cocaine as “Mr B” and ice as “Mr C”.
It was only by cracking Lee’s cipher that Australian investigators, with the help of Hong Kong police, were able to conduct surveillance of a meeting at the Royal Plaza Hotel in Hong Kong in 2012 and allegedly identify “John” as Mr Lee.
However, it is understood lawyers for Mr Lee are alleging the federal police has mistaken his identity and are fighting efforts to extradite him.
While global media attention has focused on the arrest of Mr Tse due to his senior position in The Company, Mr Lee’s resilience, success and longevity as a suspected transnational drug trafficker is on par with many of the world’s better known drug bosses.
Policing authorities say that The Company is a prime case study of the modernisation and corporatisation of organised crime. The syndicate is an amalgam of once competing Chinese Triad groups that have variously worked with Australian bikies, South American cartels and European crime bosses.
The Company mostly avoided generating media headlines and viewed violence as bad for business as it industrialised drug production via super laboratories in Myanmar’s lawless Shan State and accessed massive stockpiles of precursor chemicals in southern China.
A police intelligence report circulated among overseas agencies warned The Company had corrupted policing and security agencies across Asia.
In 2019, Mr Tse even obtained the contents of a highly confidential Australian Federal Police document circulated among partner forces which alerted him to the fact that he was “Target 1” of an operation created to capture him. Mr Lee was also listed on the same document as “Target 6.”
The operations of The Company were first reported in 2019 by The Age, Sydney Morning Herald and Sixty Minutes in a story documenting how triads had infiltrated Crown Resorts.
At the time, Crown’s high profile board published full-page newspaper advertisements attacking the story along with its “extensive reference to alleged criminal connections to an organisation said to be called The Company.”
Crown has “no dealings or knowledge of any organisation of that name or description,” the advertisement, which has since been discredited by the Bergin inquiry as inaccurate and misleading, stated.
Last year, AFP deputy commissioner Karl Kent described The Company as “being a huge threat to Australia … not only in terms of illicit drugs but in terms of people smuggling, in terms of firearms.”
The prosecution of Mr Lee in Australia is, according to information already aired in the cases of his co-accused, likely to include multiple reference to how Crown Casino was used to transfer funds to accounts controlled by Mr Lee in Hong Kong.
Nick McKenzie is an investigative reporter who has twice been named Australian Journalist of the Year. A winner of ten Walkley Awards, he investigates politics, business, foreign affairs/defence, human rights issues and policing/ criminal justice.