The parcels are sorted by size and scanned. Any item that raises suspicion is inspected further.
Officers armed with Stanley knives open the parcels. Inside, they can find anything from weapons, including firearms or knives, to the more bizarre – cigarettes concealed in car seats, child-like sex dolls, or molasses wrapped in noodle packets.
While some items get the all-clear, others are taken to be destroyed or handed over to the Australian Federal Police.
Officers also inspect incoming letters in an array of colourful envelopes.
Some, such as a business letter or a birthday card, raise suspicion and, upon further inspection, contain drugs – including cocaine or cannabis seeds.
Since the pandemic started, Superintendent Fleming said the facility saw a drop in mail of “around 65 per cent” in April compared to last year.
“Whilst that was a reduction, there’s still a lot of mail here,” he said.
The pandemic has resulted in a shift in the types of items coming in, including herbal medicine ephedra and hydroxychloroquine – a medication for malaria and auto-immune conditions. Both drugs have been touted overseas as being able to prevent or cure COVID-19, but these claims are unproved.
About two kilograms of ephedra were detected in the first three months of 2020; from April to May, more than 66 kilograms were found, leading authorities to believe it was being used by people seeking COVID-19 cures.
Officers also detected minimal amounts of hydroxychloroquine before COVID-19. However, between May 8 and June 21, they seized more than 16,000 anti-malaria medications, including hydroxychloroquine tablets.
Criminal syndicates have also used the pandemic to change how they do business.
“What we have seen through COVID is some change in concealment methods, and criminal syndicates are very quick to think about things that we may not look at,” Superintendent Fleming said.
“We had some good detections of methamphetamine, which was kept inside hand sanitiser for instance,” he said. “But of course, we’re able to detect it.”
Last year, the facility detected illicit tobacco more than 100,000 times, drugs more than 10,000 times, weapons about 16,000, and firearm-related items about 7000.
Superintendent Fleming said his officers are good at what they do because they are highly trained and use their intuition.
“They’ll quite often look at something and go, ‘Well, it doesn’t look like there are drugs there, but it also doesn’t look quite right’,” he said.
For example, an ABF officer grew suspicious about a shipment of soap bars that appeared normal on the X-ray machine. Upon further investigation, the cakes of soap contained cocaine.
Superintendent Fleming, who has headed the facility since earlier this year, said he loves the job.
“But for me, the most rewarding thing is the staff because they’re just so dedicated to stopping all of these things coming into the country,” he said.
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Laura is a crime reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald.