Police crack major milestone as operation nets large amount of drugs, millions in cash, cars

"Gangs should not be making money from exploiting our communities."
"Gangs should not be making money from exploiting our communities." Photo credit: Getty Images / Police.

Police have cracked a major milestone by seizing more than $500 million in cash and assets over a four-year period.

As part of Operation Worthington, 16 search warrants were executed throughout Auckland on Wednesday, netting 44kgs of meth, a large amount of other drugs - including ephedrine, pseudoephedrine, ketamine and MDMA - and millions of dollars worth of cash, property and cars.

More than 200 charges have been laid against 21 people as part of that sting.

Police have now seized $513 million worth of cash and assets since the annual reporting target came into effect on July 1, 2017, according to Assistant Commissioner, Investigations Lauano Sue Schwalger.

"Our goal was to hit $500 million by June 30, and in doing so we know we have had a direct and significant impact on organised crime – an activity that feeds on greed, profits, and harm to the community."

A total of 18 search warrants were carried out over the last two days across Auckland as part of the 11-month-long Operation Worthington investigation run by the National Organised Crime Group. Warrants were executed in Ranui, Sandringham, Onehunga, Auckland CBD, Pakuranga, West Harbour and Wattle Downs.

The 21 people arrested face charges relating to the importation of drugs, money laundering and participating in an organised criminal group. Aged between 19 and 43, they will appear in the Auckland District Court.

Police cannot rule out further arrests or charges as the operation remains ongoing.

A million dollars in cash was seized as well as eight properties, a car park and four high end vehicles. Those assets are worth more than $10 million.

Detective Inspector Paul Newman said on Thursday that the investigation initially focused on a group of individuals allegedly laundering millions of dollars in cash obtained from criminal offending in New Zealand.

"However, detectives soon established that these individuals were allegedly part of a wider, very sophisticated syndicate involved in importing large quantities of methamphetamine and its precursors, along with other drugs such as ketamine and MDMA," police said.

"As part of the operation and with assistance from New Zealand Customs, a number of drug imports were intercepted and seized including a bathtub concealing over 25kgs of methamphetamine.

"Police also seized a further 19kgs of methamphetamine over the course of the investigation."

Police also seized 26kgs of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, five kilograms of ketamine and three kilograms of MDMA.

Det Insp Newman said the seizures mean a large quantity of these drugs, which cause immeasurable harm in our communities, has been taken off the streets.

“This operation is all about preventing harm in our communities," he said.

"We have followed the money and it has lead us to substantial drug offending. Money has been their weakness; it is hard to conceal and our investigation has exploited this."

Schwalger congratulated staff on Operation Worthington and all "who have been involved in ongoing efforts to disrupt organised crime groups and to minimise the harm they cause in the community". 

Police Minister Poto William was among those welcoming the seizures. 

"Gangs should not be making money from exploiting our communities. This Government is very clear - we will not tolerate organised crime and gangs and we are working hard to disrupt them," she said on Thursday.

"New Zealanders have the right to feel safe in their homes and their communities. Actions like this will go a long way to making New Zealanders safer by making a significant dent in the illicit economy – which causes so much harm in our communities."

The minister said that for every dollar seized, $3.30 of crime is disrupted. For every dollar forfeited, $3.50 of crime is disrupted. She said that means police have removed about $1.6 billion from the illicit economy. 

The Government and police have come under scrutiny recently for their stance towards gangs. Last week, police were criticised by opposition parties for shutting down roads in response to a gang funeral, while government ministers have come under fire for meeting with representatives of the Waikato Mongrel Mob Kingdom.

Williams, however, said the Government is taking several steps to hit the gangs hard, such as with proposed amendments to Proceeds of Crime legislation "so those involved in organised crime would have to demonstrate their assets were obtained through legitimate means or lose them". The Government has also announced it will soon introduce Firearms Prohibition Orders.

Thirty-five people were arrested in New Zealand, 900 charges laid and $3.7 million in assets seized during a major global police operation earlier this month

Schwalger said money taken from the criminals will be redistributed into the community through the Proceeds of Crime Fund. 

Police say the fund has invested in several initiatives, including $4.94 million in reintegration services for women through Ara Poutama Aotearoa, $3.15 million for mental health and addiction treatment services in the Eastern Police District, and $1.78 million in the Ministry of Health’s Manaaki Wāhine – a trauma-informed intervention for women experiencing homelessness.

"If we remove the money that is used by criminals to reinvest in further illicit activities, we dismantle their ability to create other opportunities to cause harm.

"Taking away the assets that criminals have purchased with the proceeds of their criminal activity, sends the message that crime does not pay.

"It also means taking away the lifestyle and ‘high-end toys’ that are used by gangs to attract prospective members.

"We will continue the excellent work we do to make New Zealand the safest country by making it the hardest place in the world for criminals to do business."

Examples of cash and assets restrained from 1 July 2017

  • Operation Frontia was an investigation into the importation of Methamphetamine. Assets that were restrained and later forfeited as part of sentencing in 2019 and included two boats and $28,700.00 in cash.
  • On 13 May, a Police operation in Napier and Hastings successfully restrained approximately $2 million in cash and assets including five residential properties, vehicles, motorcycles, jet skis, cash and the contents of various bank accounts. The operation targeted senior members of the Mongrel Mob involved in supplying methamphetamine. A number of search warrants were executed targeting other organised crime groups, included were members of Black Power and Outlaws MC gangs. Six people were arrested on drugs and firearms related charges with the investigations ongoing. Firearms, methamphetamine, cannabis and synthetic drugs were also seized during the search warrants.