June 16, 2012

My cell phone rings. I answer and it’s a good mate, Mike Amor – the Seven Network Australia Bureau Chief. “Jay .. What are you doing?”, Mike says. “I’ve got a little trip to Mexico I need your help with. It’s a few days filming and producing at a resort. It’ll be fun, there’s a pool – bring your shorts!”

(Video Courtesy of Seven Network Australia)

Johnny Varga and Justin O’Brien standing on the Mexic0 border side of the Rio Grande (Río Bravo del Norte).

Immediately the image of drinks by the pool at a five star resort spring to mind and without hesitation I say, “YES .. Great .. When are we leaving?” “Next weekend”, Mike replies. “I’ll get Kimmy (the travel agent) to send you the flight details”.

Two days before our departure Mike comes clean. It’s not a Cabo San Lucas resort we’re heading to, but the 2010 ‘murder capital’ of the world. A Texas-Mexico border town called Ciudad Juárez. Mike’s joke was good, but the destination change made no difference. My answer would have been ‘Yes’. In journalism, there is an unwritten motto – never say ‘NO’. Plus, it was an adventure, a chance to see first hand Mexico’s ‘Drug War’ and at the same time hangout with two good mates, Mike (Reporter) and John Varga (Cameraman).

Johnny and I flew into El Paso, Texas. It was midday Saturday when we landed and stinking hot, around 101 degrees (38 degrees Celsius). Gustavo Ortiz, our driver for the next three days met us at the arrival gate. For safety, we hired a driver in El Paso, Texas. Our major concern in Juarez was being kidnapped by a local driver and transported into the waiting arms of a drug Cartel!  

Gustavo Ortiz

Gustavo grew up in Juarez. Married with two children he made a living buying used cars in Salt Lake City, then selling them at a car yard he owned across the border. But three years ago, unwilling to pay a US$1000 a month bribe or be kidnapped, Gustavo packed up his family and moved to El Paso. “That’s just the way it is in Mexico”, he said. “I am lucky, I can cross the border legally and keep my family safe”.

Researching this assignment, I ‘Googled’ Juarez. The first Google results was an August 2010 CBS News story about the US border town and the deadly violence engulfing it. At that stage 28,000 people had been killed in the four-year-old drug war. Crossing over the US-Mexico border, I expected to see roadblocks manned by heavily armed soldiers and police on every street.

Two hours after landing – Gustavo, Johnny and I were driving through Juarez on our way to the hotel. There wasn’t a roadblock in sight. Women with small children sat at bus stop outside an ‘S Mart’ grocery store and banners above bars promoted the ‘Manny Pacquiao and Timothy Bradley’ boxing match, screened live from Las Vegas Saturday night. Juarez looked like any Mexican Baja town I’d seen many times before. The streets were dusty, rundown buildings stood desperately waiting for owners to reopen businesses closed long ago. But, it wasn’t the war zone I had expected. There were people on the streets.

Waiting for us at the hotel was Jordi Lebrija. A Reuters journalist who’d flown in from Tijuana to be our

Jordi Lebrija

fixer/translator. A trusting extra set of eyes and ears we could rely upon. Again, we feared hiring a local fixer who for a few ‘pesos’ wouldn’t hesitate to ‘sell us down the river!’

Checking in, the clerk laughed at John’s surname (Varga) when he handed over his identification. Varga pronounced in Spanish sounds like ‘verga’ which means cock or dick! So, we added ‘pequeño’ which is Spanish for small and for the next three days Johnny’s nicknamed became ‘pequeño verga’ – ‘small dick’! 

That’s the great thing about travelling with mates your trust. Nothing’s too tough, you ‘take the piss’ (joke around), have fun and you lookout for each other.

The ‘Mercado Juarez’ (City Market) in Juarez is now a ghost town. Several years ago it was impossible to find a car park because of all the tourists.

Back out on the road we headed to the ‘Mercado Juarez’ (City Market). Hoping to film a ‘lively bustling’ market, we en-counted a ghost town. Shuttered windows greet anyone willing to visit. Gone are the mariachi bands and the outdoor dining areas that used to feed hungry visitors who made the short border crossing from El Paso, until the Cartels and the drug war killed off Juarez’s tourist industry.

‘Sunglasses .. sunglasses’, said a 70-year old man in Spanglish. ‘Good price for you’. Three years ago he made US$50 a day selling sunglasses, now the old man said he “was lucky to make 50 pesos”.  

It’s a catch-22 situation. Tourists won’t return until they know it’s safe and locals can’t prove Juarez is safe until the market is again filled with tourists.

Across the road, is ‘the Ladies Bar’. A sign written in Spanish

‘The Ladies Bar’ across from the ‘Mercado Juarez’. The bar is now open only two nights a week.

on the door reads – “wanted .. pretty girls of 18-25 years .. good presentation .. thin and willing to flirt”. Jordi translated the sign for me and commented, “things are so tough in Juarez, that even the bad girls have left!!!”  

But it wasn’t all-bad. Jessica Simpson Meraz, a close friend in Los Angeles grew up in El Paso. Jess spent her teenage weekend’s visiting Juarez, eating and shopping. Her assignment to me was find a restaurant called ‘Barrigas’ (‘bellies’) and order the ‘Tampiquena Arrachera’ (a Mexican spiced skirt steak). The fresh crushed lime margaritas were great and the food was amazing. Just as amazing were the half dozen tables full of men and women in their 20’s dressed in prom dresses and tuxedos. Jordi said they were celebrating their graduation from College or University. Not the sight I expected to see in an alleged war zone. They were putting the ‘street’ troubles behind or at least saying – ‘we are going to live our lives’.

‘Barrigas’ Restaurant – ‘Tampiquena Arrachera’

After dinner we headed to a bar called ‘Tabasco’ to watch the ‘Pacquiao and Bradley’ fight. The bar was packed. I smiled at several woman in their mid-20’s sitting nearby, they smiled back. I then looked at the Rolex wearing, gold chained, slicked back hair middle aged men sitting with them. My eyes instinctively shot up to the big screen showing the ‘Pacquiao’ fight and I never looked back! Were they Cartel? Maybe, maybe not. I didn’t plan on finding out!

An hour later Johnny, Jordi, Gustavo and I were across the street at a bar/cantina called ‘San Martin’. All the seats and tables were full, it was standing room only as the crowd moved to the tunes of duelling mariachi bands! The atmosphere was great. It was as if the locals had said ‘enough is enough’ .. ‘we are taking our town back’. At one stage a couple came over and wanted to have their photo taken with us. Obviously they hadn’t seen foreigners in a while. Did I feel safe? Yes. But, Johnny and I stood-out. We were the only gringo’s in the bar. An easy target.

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Our ‘real’ assignment in Mexico, was to profile an Australian priest whose Corpus Christi Parish sits in the poorest area of Juarez. Father Kevin Mullins stands out. Not just because of his Aussie/Spanish accent or the reflector aviator sunglasses he wears, but the adulation thrust upon him by locals who flood to his Sunday service.

“I think about 200 parents have named their son’s Kevin since I arrived here”, Father Kevin Mullins said. “But .. I told my superior don’t worry. None of them have blue eyes!”, Father Mullins said jokingly.

11-years ago 30 people would turn up to the Sunday service. Now it’s more like 400 and people flow out the doors. Before we started filming, I asked Father Mullins how long the service would go for? He replied with a smile, “An hour and a half to two hours. They like a song and dance here”. He wasn’t wrong!

A father and daughter attend a Sunday service at Corpus Christi Parish, Juarez Mexico.

I was struck by the number of families – husbands, wives and children in their best clothes jammed together, sitting on pews. Then when given the opportunity, everyone was jumped their feet singing and clapping. I couldn’t help compare my own life in Santa Monica, where it’s all about what car you drive and eating organic foods. These Juarez locals have nothing, but at the same time they have everything.

Outside, we spoke to several locals about the drug violence. “Yes it’s very bad, but we have no choice .. we live here”, said Juan Lara. Drug related deaths have dropped 70% in the past three years, down from between 13 to 20 murders a day to one every second day. “Right now it’s going down the violence .. no it doesn’t stop, the violence still .. the kidnapping, it is coming now”, said parish assistant Gregorio Soto.

We head back to the hotel. Travelling in Gustavo’s Ford Explorer we discuss past assignments – Libya, Iraq, Haiti, Hurricane Katrina – we decide Juarez is not as bad as what everyone says. Talk quickly turns back to girlfriends. Jordi’s 23-year old girlfriend keeps calling to say ‘she loves’ him. While Johnny is ‘coping it’ for giving up his apartment to move in with his new girlfriend. “You’ve got the ‘furry handcuffs’ on mate”, says Mike when suddenly Gustavo points out a ‘Policia Federal’

Filming a Mexican Policia Federal (Federal Police) Truck loaded with balaclava wearing heavily armed police.

(Federal Police) Truck loaded with balaclava clad armed officers dressed in dark blue fatigues.

Gustavo speeds up. Chasing the cops so we can get close enough to film them. The sight of the Mexican Federal Police, their identities hidden and holding American made M-16 assault rifles is a reminder, all is not as it appears in Juarez. The local police chief Colonel Julián Leyzaola, who successfully battled corruption in Tijuana, is credited for reducing Juarez’s drug related deaths. But locals fear it’s just a lull in the violence, hinging upon who wins Mexico’s Presidential Election next month. “The Cartels just want to be left alone to do business”, a Juarez resident told me.   

Late Monday afternoon, we headed back across the US-Mexican border and into the safety of El Paso. Driving East along Interstate 10, there is a twinge of sadness as we look back across the US border towards Juarez and the ‘dusty’ suburbs we’d spent the past three days. It was a shared adventure and a fun time. Would I go back? Yes. Would I let a woman I love go to Juarez? NO WAY!!! 



January 31, 2011

On November 11, 2010 I submitted a complaint to the OmbudsmanNT about Northern Territory Police accessing my personal telephone records.

The police investigation was part of a ‘witch hunt’ to try and identify the anonymous NT Police sources I quoted while reporting for the NT News on a drug squad raid at Darwin Lord Mayor Graeme Sawyer’s house.

The report can be downloaded by clicking on this link:

OmbudsmanNT final report

Or read the an edited version of  OmbudsmanNT report below.

Commissioner John McRoberts

Dear Mr O’Brien

RE: Complaint against Police

I refer to your written complaint to this Office dated 11 November 2010, regarding the Northern Territory Police accessing your mobile phone records without your permission or knowledge and your request to investigate whether that conduct was unlawful or not.

I accepted your request not to have the Ethical and Professional Standards Command (EPSC) deal with your complaint and my office made enquiries.


As you are aware on 20 October 2010 the Northern Territory Police executed a search warrant at a house situated in Wagaman. An NT News article written by you about this search, published on 21 October 2010, stated that information had been provided to the media by a police source.

That information included the identity of the owner of the house at Wagaman which was information not released to the media by NT Police.

The Police received a complaint from the home owner dated 27 October 2010 regarding leaked information. The EPSC had prior to that date launched an investigation to find the

Darwin Lord Mayor Graeme Sawyer

Darwin Lord Mayor Graeme Sawyer

Police Officer responsible. The Ombudsman was notified of the complaint from the homeowner on 5 November 2010.

The actions of a police officer providing information to you was a breach of Section 155 of the Police Administration Act. It was also potentially an offence under Section 76 of the Criminal Code:

’76 (1) Any person who, being employed in the public service or engaged to do any work for or render any service to the government of the Territory or any department or statutory body thereof, unlawfully communicates confidential information coming to his knowledge because of such position is guilty of a crime and is liable to imprisonment for 3 years.

(2) If he does so for purposes of gain he is liable to imprisonment for 5 years.’

If an offence was committed by a police officer providing information to the NT News the person obtaining that information could also have been guilty of the same offence as an accomplice, inciter, abettor or procurer.

A155 Communication of information

(1) A member shall not, without reasonable cause, publish or communicate any fact or document to any other person which comes to the knowledge or into the possession of the member in the course of his duties as a member and which the member has not been authorised to disclose.

Justin B. O'Brien - Multimedia Journalist

Multimedia Journalist - Justin O'Brien

Penalty: $1,000 or imprisonment for 6 months or both

First CCR search — 19 October — 22 October

On 21 October 2010 a Senior Constable from the Operational Intelligence Section (015) completed a Request form which was allocated to another Senior Constable from the Drug and Intelligence Division. The Request was for CCR and RCCR records for the period

19/10/2010 to 22/10/2010 for your mobile 0401442440. On 22 October 2010 the acting Officer in Charge of 015 authorised the request.

The Authorisation was electronically sent to Optus on 22 October 2010. Unfortunately the officer completing the electronic request made a clerical error and entered incorrect information into the document citing that the CCR and RCCR information was for an investigation into offences contrary to the Misuse of Drugs Act.

This incorrect information appears to have no effect on the Police meeting the Commonwealth requirement for Authorisations. The request accurately recorded the enabling legislation (Section 178(2)).

Subsequently, Police noted their error and corrected their records identifying section 155 of the Police Administration Act as the reason for seeking the carrier (Optus) records. They also advised Optus of the mistake to ensure that no record existed linking your phone number as having some connection with the misuse of drugs.

The Police on obtaining your phone records determined the name of a Police officer believed to have breached section 155 of the Police Administration Act. Details for phone numbers showing on your records were sought from the carrier to identity the subscriber to that number.

The search of your charge records to this point was limited to a four day period during which it appeared that a Police officer provided information to you. Your records identified a Police officer’s phone number. The records showed two calls from your number to the officer’s and one call to you from the Police officer.

The first call on the records between the two numbers showed that the contact was initiated by you.

Ms Richards found NT Police acted 'unreasonably'.

I am satisfied that the records and evidence show that the first search of your call charge records was lawful and was reasonably necessary for the investigation of suspected offences. Those offences could have been breaches of Section 155 of the Police Administration Act, a breach of Section 76 of the Criminal Code and possible breaches of Sections 12, 43BG, 43BH, 43B1 or 104 of the Criminal Code. Further investigation by NT Police to find out who used the phone sets matching the subscriber numbers was warranted.

The Second CCR search — 22 September 2010 — 27 October 2010

On 28 October 2010 a Senior Constable from 01S, sent another request for your records. The request was only for your CCR records, ie, records of whom you called, not who called you. However the period was expanded seeking records from 22 September 2010 to 27 October 2010. The authorising officer was the Territory Intelligence Coordinator (TIC). The electronic Authorisation for your records was sent on 01/11/2010 to Optus. The Authorisation was given by a Senior Sergeant whom I am satisfied had a lawful delegation under the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act.

Also on 28 October 2010 the Police applied for and obtained CCR’s (22/09/10 to 27/10/10) for a Police officer believed to have been responsible for the information leak.On 5 November 2010 this officer was interviewed and on 8 November 2010 the officer was disciplined (section 14(c) of the Police Administration Act) for not reporting contact with you.

Investigation Outcome

This investigation revealed that the Police made two (2) applications to Optus to obtain your CCR’s, the initial application included obtaining your RCCR’s.

I have seriously considered your view that Section 180(4) of the TIAA – Authorisations for access to prospective information or documents – applies to Section 178. Section 178 is the section of the TIAA that Police relied upon to obtain your records.

Prospective information (as referred to in section 180) is not defined within the Act, however it was described by NT Police as accessing real time data. In researching a 2007 submission to the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee I found prospective data being described as information that comes into existence during the life of an authorisation. The Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act 1979 Annual Report for the year ending 30 June 2009 describes prospective data as data that comes into existence during the period for which the authorisation is in force. It does not include data that came into existence before the authorisation was in force. The disclosure of prospective data may be authorised by a criminal law-enforcement agency when it is considered reasonably necessary, by an authorising officer, for the investigation of an offence with a prison term of at least three years.

The seeking of your phone records in the second instance (starting from 22/09/2010) was in my view unnecessary. At the time of this second request the Police Officer believed to be responsible for the ‘leak’ had been identified. You had identified yourself in the article you wrote as a possible accomplice.

The Police informed me that the second search of your CCRs was to find out what communication occurred between the Officer and you before and after the calls on 20 October 2010. They said that you and the officer connected to the number you called on 20 October might have been close friends regularly in touch which would tend to dilute anything sinister about the calls on 20 October. I was also told that it was necessary to have the records to be ready to challenge the officer concerned when he was interviewed in case he claimed to be regularly in touch with you as a friend. I reject that latter explanation as a sufficient reason justifying the extent of the records requested.

The officer concerned was interviewed three days before Optus provided the CCRs which causes me to discount the “friendship” defence as a sufficient reason. I also consider that even if the CCRs for a five week period showed that your phone and the officer’s phone were connected often, such records would not prove who made the calls and what was said. Those records for a five week period were not capable of disclosing anything of probative value beyond what  had  already been obtained by the first search.

Although I am satisfied that the second search of your CCRs was lawful and authorised under Section 178 of the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act that search was “unreasonable” within the meaning of Section 101 of the OA. Police have powers and they have a discretion to decide when and how to exercise those powers. They also have a duty to respect the human rights and dignity of the citizens they serve and protect. There must be a balance maintained and intrusive powers ought not to be exercised unless it is reasonably necessary to do so. In the instance of the second search of your CCRs for a period of five weeks it is my opinion that the intrusion into your privacy was not reasonable even though it was lawful.

The Commissioner of Police disagrees with my view. His view is that the second request to Optus was in accord with “standard investigative techniques … to establish whether contact between parties is an ongoing occurrence and whether there is a pattern to the conduct…”.

I have not accepted that view in your case because any contact between you and a police officer prior to the execution of the warrant, on 20 October 2010, was of no relevance to an alleged offence of unlawful disclosure of an event which happened on one occasion only, on either 20 or 21 October 2010. I have given the Commissioner of Police my reasons for the view I hold and I include an extract of my letter to him:

“In my opinion to access phone call charge records for a period of three weeks before the event which precipitated the offence under Section 155 of the Police Administration Act was unreasonable. It was in my view unreasonable because any interaction or communication between Mr O’Brien and any police officer prior to the execution of the warrant on the house in question was not capable of producing any evidence that could logically have carried any probative value. Citizens of the Northern Territory have a human right to privacy, recognised by International Conventions and Declarations, and to some extent recognised by the Common Law.

There was no proportionality between the seriousness of the offence being investigated, the value of any information likely to be obtained and the degree of invasion of Mr O’Brien’s human right to privacy. It is the failure to balance the value of his rights against the outcome sought or potentially available that amounts to the exercise of the discretion to access his records being, in my view, unreasonable. In many other cases the investigative techniques you describe might well shift the balance and make the needs of law enforcement or prevention of harm reasonably override a person’s right to privacy. I do not believe it was reasonable to do so in this instance.”


I made four recommendations to the Commissioner of Police. The Commissioner of Police has accepted two of them as follows:

1. The Commissioner of Police will issue a general order to make it patent that access to a person’s telephone call records must be authorised by a member of the rank of Superintendent or above.

2. The Commissioner of Police will issue a new authorisation under the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act replacing the exiting authorisation of Commissioner Paul White authorising only officers of the rank of Superintendent and above only to make requests for telephone call records under the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act.

I note that you have approached my office concerning a response from NT Police to a request by NT News under the Information Act for the release of documents. It is correct that under the Information Act documents obtained by EPSC to investigate a complaint against Police that is covered by the Ombudsman Act are exempt from disclosure. That exemption arose first when NT Police notified the Ombudsman of the Lord Mayor’s complaint on 5 November 2010. No document before that date would be covered by the exemption of documents and information created or obtained under the Ombudsman Act.

Other exemptions may be applicable but not the exemption created by Section 49C of the Information Act. I do not know what documents were requested under the Information Act and I cannot investigate any matter arising under the Information Act unless it is referred to me by the Information Commissioner.

If you require any further information please contact the Assistant Ombudsman, Bert Hofer.

I advise that the notice served relating to disclosure of the draft of this report remains valid.

It does not apply to this report.




May 14, 2010

Northern Territory Police Commissioner John McRoberts has moved to put his personal stamp on the organisation he took control of in December last year. Five months in and an

NT Police Commissioner John McRoberts

Northern Territory Police Commissioner John McRoberts

internal shake-up of the Northern Territory Senior Police ranks is underway.

’85 to 90 percent of people got what they wanted’ – said a source within the Senior ranks.

Commissioner McRoberts is an advocate of career development and the idea behind the shake-up is to give Superintendent’s the chance to nominate and prove themselves in jobs, they want to do.

‘You have to give the Commissioner his due’, a Superintendent said on condition of anonymity. ‘When McRoberts arrived he invited us in for a chat individually and said – What do you want to do? Tell me where you want to go.’

The style of McRoberts is in sharp contract to the former Police Commissioner Paul White. During the eight years Paul White was in-charge according to a source – ‘people were just tapped on the shoulder and told you’re going!’

‘Anything to do with White is out’ said another source. Some changes are obvious, the NT Police business cards have been changed to a more modern look, frontline Officers are now required to wear reflective vests at all times, Officers can now choose either to wear the ‘bush hat’ or traditional Police hat and six monthly ‘Operational Performance Reviews’ have been abandoned.

A winner in the restructuring is Superintendent Jamie Chalker. Currently the Officer in Charge of Darwin Police Station. Chalker is moving to become Commissioner McRoberts Chief of Staff.

Superintendent Chalker is regarded as future Police Commissioner material. Chalker’s father, Robyn Chalker was at one stage the Commander of the NT Major Crime Unit. But, importantly like it or not – Jamie Chalker has the confidence of the lower ranks.

‘.. he’s switched on .. you’re not going to be able to pull the wool over his eyes .. he’ll be able to deal with a lot of the shit’ according to an Officer at the Darwin Station.

NT Police Chief of Staff, Superintendent Jamie Chalker

NT Police Chief of Staff, Superintendent Jamie Chalker

Chalker replaces Superintendent David Pryce, the current Chief of Staff who is joining the Australian Federal Police and will be promoted to the rank of Commander. Other notable moves include Superintendent Tony Fuller the current head of Disaster Victim Identification (DVI) who is moving to run Palmerston Station and Superintendent Kris Evans will take over the Major Crime Unit.

While the shake-up by McRoberts in the Senior ranks is significant, a review being undertaken by Assistant Commissioner Mark Payne and Commander Rob Kendrick has the potential to cause a mutiny within the serving ranks.

Payne and Kendrick are undertaking a review that will restructure the way Police in the Darwin Region operate. Ideas include: amalgamating the newly reformed traffic branch within another Unit, combing the Commanders Tactical Team, Youth Crime and Domestic Violence Unit into one Unit overseen by a Senior Sergeant who reports to a Superintendent and joining the Casuarina, Palmerston and Darwin Detectives into one Unit based in the City.

Creating one Detective Unit could undermine the street knowledge and experience of Investigators who would be required to chase bad guys in suburbs they’re not familiar with, thus undermining their effectiveness.

One Detective said the proposed changes ‘would share the work load at night, but it’s been tried before and it didn’t work.’

Assistant Commissioner Mark Payne has reportedly been on a listening tour around the three main stations – Casuarina, Darwin and Palmerston. Payne allegedly told one meeting – ‘.. we (the Commissioner) want to implement these changes in a month’. The response from a 15 year veteran was ‘hold on .. we’ll need six months at least’.

Commissioner John McRoberts has hit the ground running. So far it’s been a Carl Lewis performance over the first 100 metres, but only time and the clock will tell if he finishes the marathon without suffering a few blisters along the way.