Growing cruise ship industry brings threat of drug trafficking boom - report

A Customs intelligence report has revealed the boom in the cruise ship industry is bringing with it the threat of an increase in drug trafficking, and that includes New Zealand ports.

A report obtained by Newhub identifies several cocaine seizures associated with cruise ships in New Zealand in recent years.

The report says drug trafficking via cruise ships is a "well-established" activity undertaken by organised crime groups worldwide.

It also notes human trafficking, mainly for sexploitation, and migrant smuggling around the Pacific and that "marine craft have been noted as pathways for such activity".

A maritime lawyer told Newshub he has concerns about "soft access points" around the country, but Customs says it is adequately resourced to cope with the booming cruise ship industry.

About 259,000 cruise ship passengers visited NZ in the year to June 2018, a 17 percent increase on 2017. 

Maritime lawyer Peter Dawson says there's no slowing down for the industry.

"The cruise ship industry in New Zealand is booming. We've seen an exponential increase in not just the number of vessels, but the length and size of the vessels, and the number of passengers."

The report highlights marked changes in the quantities of drugs syndicates are trying to smuggle on the ships.

Customs intelligence manager Wei-Jiat Tan says seizures from cruise ships have also increased.

"In the past we were seeing smaller type seizures. More recently, over the last few years, we are seeing multi-kilo shipments."

These multi-kilo shipments include the 24kg of cocaine seized from a French cruise tourist in the Bay of Islands in 2017, and the 95kg taken from two Candian Instagram socialites in Sydney, which travelled through Auckland before they were busted.

Mr Tan says one drug is more common than others.

"What we see traditionally smuggled globally in the cruise ship space is cocaine."

The report states cocaine is also the most common drug found in supply amounts in the Pacific and Australia.

It says 80 percent of vessels arriving here originated or transited through Australia, and it links motorbike gangs here in New Zealand to international smuggling syndicates. 

Mr Tan says overseas crime groups no longer work in isolation.

Mr Dawson says there's also growing interest in bespoke super yacht tours here that don't stop in main cities, but remote ports and islands.

"It could be a softer access point," he said.

Customs group manager of intelligence, investigations and enforcement Jamie Bamford says this might not be the case.

"I would contest that's not true. We risk access all small craft that come down to New Zealand."

He says they do have the manpower to cope.

"I'm pretty comfortable that the resourcing we have and the resourcing we have coming is appropriate for the challenges that we have coming."

The report points to China as one of the fastest growing cruise markets and a future risk for drug trafficking.

Mr Tan says customs would keep a close eye, given China's "rich history of methamphetamine export and production".

China certainly warrants close scrutiny, police there recently cracking down on the meth underworld.

As a result, gangs have now shifted meth production to Myanmar, with the finished product being sent from ports in Malaysia, Laos and Thailand directly to New Zealand.

National Drug Intelligence Bureau manager John O'Keefe said it's hard to squash these production syndicates.

"It's just like a balloon effect. You squeeze that and those syndicates move somewhere else."

The syndicates are getting more sophisticated now, even sending liquid drugs masked by chemicals that hide their presence.

Customs says it will hire an extra 100 staff over the next four years to combat drug smuggling in all areas, but points out that 99 percent of travellers and trade pose no risk. 


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