Sinaloa Cartel behind major recent New Zealand drug busts - experts

One of the most powerful, sophisticated Mexican crime groups, the Sinaloa Cartel, is believed to be behind recent major drug finds at the New Zealand border.

Formerly led by Mexican drug lord El Chapo, it's believed to be targeting New Zealand due to high drug prices here.

Intelligence documents obtained by Newshub confirm meth made by Mexican cartels is the biggest problem for our law enforcement agencies right now.

Mexican cartels are also linked to large cocaine seizures, including 190 kilograms hidden inside boxed bananas on a container ship last year.

Newshub spoke to Scott Stewart from US intelligence group Stratfor, who's an expert on Mexican cartels. He was also the lead investigator on the 1993 World Trade Centre bombings and has spent time investigating Pablo Escobar.

He says the "size and clarity of the methamphetamine crystals" found by our Customs officials inside golf carts recently bear the hallmarks of drugs made in a Mexican superlab.

"Most likely [the drugs are from] Sinaloa, just because of that global reach and because of their history of operations in Asia," he says.

"They have the reach, they have the power, the have those connections that have been long established."

Mr Stewart has been investigating Mexican crime groups for 14 years. He says the "sophisticated smuggling tactics" of using golf cart batteries are "consistent with what you'd expect from the Sinaloa Cartel".

"They frequently use batteries in getting liquid methamphetamine across the US border," he says.

"There's been a history of the large cartels and specifically the Sinaloa Cartel trying to send cocaine to Australia and New Zealand."

A 2016 raid led to the arrest of the elusive cartel kingpin, El Chapo. He was last month convicted of trafficking and his story is now the subject of another hit TV series. But despite his arrest, the drugs have kept flowing.

The Mexican Navy found a record 50 tonnes of meth in an underground lab linked to El Chapo's cartel in August last year.

"Some of those labs are making 100 kilos, 200 kilos a day on a 24-hour shift," says National Drug Intelligence bureau manager John O'Keeffe.

Neither Police nor Customs will say if the Sinaloa Cartel is sending drugs here, but a Customs briefing document talks of one cartel and "the future risks to New Zealand from the cartel".

A report from the Drug Intelligence bureau obtained by Newshub show the US was the top exporter of Mexican meth to New Zealand last year, and states: "Mexican produced meth flows into the nation (US) through the southwest border and then to NZ where the finished product earns far more".

"We pay top dollar. So if you want a good return on your money, you will sell it to New Zealand," Mr O'Keeffe says.

"For example, a kilo of methamphetamine in the US is around US$5000. A kilo in New Zealand is $160,000."

It's not just Sinaloa targeting New Zealand. A breakaway faction known as CJNG once accused of killing a group of students and dissolving them in acid is also believed to be looking in our direction.

It signals a shifting dynamic in the drug underworld. Customs says there's another emerging problem - Eastern European gangs are also targeting New Zealand.

"In the past, we saw a lot of Asian organised crime, but increasingly we are seeing groups like Mexican cartels and Eastern European organised crime groups," says Customs intelligence manager Wei-Jiat Tan.

It's a constantly evolving threat - prompting our officials to set up various posts overseas.

Customs have investigators in places like LA, Washington DC, London and Bangkok and say their work overseas last year stopped 350kg of meth and cocaine before it reached our shores. Police told Newshub they also have multiple officers working in overseas drug hotspots.

Mr Stewart says Mexican heroin and fentanyl could also become a problem.

He says the cartels can make these substances cheaply and they're known for shipping vast quantities into the US.

He has serious concerns New Zealand will see an increase in both drugs over time.