Eight arrests after major cocaine bust in Canterbury

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Millions of dollars of cocaine has been seized and eight people arrested after a major drugs operation in Canterbury.

Millions of dollars of cocaine has been seized in the operation.

Millions of dollars of cocaine has been seized in the operation. Photo: RNZ/Nathan Mckinnon

Operation Mist National Organised Crime Group director Detective Superintendent Greg Williams told media this afternoon that so far about 50kg of cocaine has been seized either here in New Zealand or overseas ports.

The media stand-up comes after seven search warrants were executed yesterday in Canterbury which resulted in eight arrests, including six Colombian nationals and one Argentinean national. One other person in Auckland was arrested.

A 34 year-old male and 38-year-old female appeared in the Christchurch District Court yesterday. Four people have appeared in court this morning.

Two more people have been charged and are due to appear today.

The charges range from money laundering to importing, supplying and attempting to import a Class A drug and participating in an organised criminal group.

Watch the police stand-up here:

Williams said he expects more arrests to happen after further search warrants are executed.

He said the arrests were a result of a 10-month investigation into the importation, supply and sale of cocaine here in New Zealand and associated money laundering offences.

“The joint investigation between NZ Police and NZ Customs involved about 70 staff from a number of different teams, including the South Island Customs investigation team, the National Crimes Group, Asset Recovery team and High-tech Crime Group, supported by our international customs and police liaison network. Those teams were working alongside the Drug Enforcement Administration (the DEA), the Colombian National Police, Spanish Customs Service and the Cook Islands customs Service.”

He thanked in particular the DEA for providing resources in the case, as well as the Colombian police for their helping identifying those who facilitated the supply of drugs into New Zealand.

Williams said the operation had dealt a huge blow to the crime group involved, as well as to the supply of cocaine into New Zealand.

“What we know from wastewater analysis is that cocaine consumption in New Zealand is relatively low… So we allege this particular group was one of the significant suppliers of cocaine into this country,” he said.

What was unique about the operation was police were able to identify supply chains of drugs from Colombian networks into New Zealand as well as the flow of money out of New Zealand into the United States, he said.

He said in terminating the operation police had so far seized $300,000 in cash, two ounces of cocaine, and a number of Crypto wallets, one containing about $70,000.

“We know at this stage this group has laundering about $600,000 and there are associated charges related to that.”

Williams described those involved as “a well-oil group” able to get their drug products to distribution networks in the country and pushing the money out as quickly as possible.

Transnational groups like this was targeting countries like New Zealand, as well as Japan, Taiwan, Australia and South Korean because of the high prices paid for illicit drugs compared with other countries, he said.

“To maximise their profit, what they’re doing is inserting their own people into New Zealand. These people are setting up the importation mechanism and the supply lines into local gangs and organised crime,” he said. Williams said these were transnational organised gang cells.

“Since 2017, the National Organised Crime Group and NZ Customs, along with our international partners, have actually identified, disrupted and dismantled 23 of these … cells. Operation Mist is the latest one over a four-year period.”

Over 80 people had been charged with drugs dealing and money laundering offences. Of those 80 people nearly 40 were overseas internationals from 19 different countries, who were now serving long terms of imprisonment, he said.

He said the gangs’ intent on pumping massive amounts of illicit drugs into the country was causing huge social harm and crime.

The gangs were now vulnerable to police knowledge of how their networks operated and who was involved, he said. Another vulnerable was their need to get their money out of the country as quickly as they can.

“So the message today is ‘don’t bother coming’,” Williams said.

“We’ll identify your people, we’ll identify, break and disrupt your networks. We will go after your assets, either here or offshore. Where necessarily we’re quite prepared to extradite people back here if involved in this offending and we will work with international partners to also hold people accountable back in other countries who are involved in this process.”

New Zealand Customs service manager intelligence Bruce Berry told media as this groups continued to adapt and grow Customs and Police were constantly targeting their operations.

“New Zealand is one part of the illicit supply chain and its through the expanding of our international networks that we’re able to inflict lasting disruption to these international supply groups,” he said.

“Customs and our international partners also played a critical role in maintaining the integrity of the legitimate supply chain,” he added.

He said last year Customs and its partners had stopped around 1.5 tonnes of illicit drugs arriving into New Zealand. This year that figure was closer to 1.8 tonnes.

“This problem is not going away … the lucrativeness of our market continues to make us an attractive market place,” he said.

Williams said the drugs were being smuggled in a number of different ways, the common methodology being hiding it in various items and either sending it by courier or shipping it in by container.

“They’ve got no compunction inserting it in all sort of things… They’ll put it into anything they think they will get it in.”

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