Customs sees 600 percent increase in MDMA seizures at New Zealand's border

The National Drug Intelligence Bureau says it has seen a huge increase in illicit drugs seized at the border, and it has been linked to international organised crime groups.

Methamphetamine, MDMA and GBL - commonly referred to as the "date-rape" drug - are being seized more frequently, but it's MDMA which is showing the most dramatic increase, up six-fold since 2017.

"At 600 percent, MDMA was the highest percentage increase across any drug commodity in New Zealand - even higher than methamphetamine," National Drug Intelligence Bureau national manager Blair MacDonald says.

"Principally, it comes into New Zealand as a powder. So if we were to equate that into a tablet equivalent, we'd be talking about just under 2.5 million pills coming into the country."

Frontline Customs officers say significant concealments of MDMA or methamphetamine are being found every couple of days. 

"So we've seen from 100 grams to up to 8 kilograms. The officers who travel offsite to the freight forwarders have recently found up to 180 kgs," Customs officer Emma Malcolm says.

Furthermore, nearly 500 litres of GBL was found at the border in 2019, which is a 69 percent increase on 2017 figures.

Customs investigations manager Bruce Berry says the spike in figures is being linked to New Zealand's meth crisis because Chinese-made GBL is being used to help people come down from meth highs.

"It comes into the country as a clear liquid, so you have no idea what it is and it's very easy to overdose on."

Organised crime

A Customs threat assessment report Newshub obtained states the "number of organised crime groups targeting New Zealand is expanding", and some of these foreign criminal syndicates are now "collaborating to supply" drugs.

Police and Customs say they have identified and dismantled 22 different transnational organised crime cells operating in the lucrative New Zealand drug market.

Mexican, Chinese, Vietnamese and Eastern European crime groups are just some of the organisations that are trying to get a foothold in the country right now. 

Meth remains the biggest issue in terms of weight of product being sent to Aotearoa - most of it comes from Thailand out of Myanmar, followed by Mexico. 

Increasingly, the drugs are arriving in New Zealand because gangs are working together. 

Berry says that organised crime groups are compartmentalising their operations and working together.

"So we might see Vietnamese groups that are moving the money, Canadian [and] Chinese groups that are moving the drugs, New Zealand motorcycle gangs with Australian links that are doing the distribution chain," he says.

In 2017, police foiled an attempt to smuggle $20 million worth of cocaine inside a container ship which docked in Tauranga. 

It was orchestrated by two Australian Rebels bikies and linked to a local chapter of the gang, and a Croatian was in charge of the money laundering.

The National Organised Crime Group national manager says it was then a Serbian who was linked to Eastern European mafia, and then tied up into Colombia whose job it was to source the cocaine and get it into New Zealand.

That investigation identified what police call transnational crime cells.

"We've identified between us and Customs [that] about 20 to 22 of those groups that are operating in New Zealand," Detective Superintendent Greg Williams says.

How it works is international groups - such as Mexican cartels - send a group of people or "cell" to New Zealand.

Once there, that cell of the bigger organisation establishes a method to get the drugs in. It's then sold on to the local gangs who arrange the distribution.

The Mexican cell group then arranges for the laundering of the cash back to the cartel.

Berry says organised crime is "incredibly agile" and their response has to be equally agile.

"Our resources and technology that we are deploying is getting better, the intelligence that we are sharing both domestically and internationally is getting better," he says.

The agile response is critical with the emergence of relatively new groups in New Zealand like the Comancheros, bolstered by deportees from Australia, who are linking up with foreign cartels in Mexico. 

"The sophistication and the level of connectivity that they have brought has accelerated the pace of change that New Zealand is seeing. They have brought the criminal landscape forward by quite a few years," Berry says.

And stopping that leap forward will take vigilance and teamwork around the clock.