Nine arrested in one of New Zealand's largest-ever cocaine busts

Nine people have been arrested in one of New Zealand's largest cocaine busts.

National Organised Crime Group director Det Supt Greg Williams said on Thursday afternoon about 50kg of cocaine has been seized in New Zealand and at overseas ports.

It's believed to be linked to importation from Colombia, with about $600,000 allegedly laundered.

Six properties were searched across Canterbury  on Wednesday, with eight people arrested, including six Colombians and one Argentinian. An additional person in Auckland has been arrested.

Five of the Christchurch-based Colombian nationals arrested were working as contractors on farms in Canterbury, Williams said.

"There is nothing to suggest the farm owners and managers had any knowledge of this operation and we thank them for their cooperation with Police as the search warrants were executed."

A pair appeared before court on Wednesday, with the others appearing on Thursday.

In executing the warrants, $300,000 of cash, three ounces of cocaine, and a number of crypto-wallets have been seized.

Further arrests are expected, Williams told media. Key people in Colombia have been identified by its local authorities. 

About 70 staff have been involved with Operation Mist over 10 months, including from Customs. Authorities in Colombia were also crucial to the operation, he said.

"The investigation is unique as it has linked the importation of cocaine from South America and Spain into New Zealand, as well as money laundering offences in the United States of America."

Images of what has been seized.
Images of what has been seized. Photo credit: Newshub.

Williams said the operation had "dealt a massive blow" to the organised crime group in New Zealand and supply of cocaine into the country. The group was allegedly one of the "significant suppliers" of cocaine into New Zealand, with cocaine selling for far higher here than in other parts of the world.

A kilogram of cocaine in Colombia could be made for about $2500 and sold for $170,000.

Williams said that had led to cells being introduced into New Zealand to get the product in, sell it, and then push money out of the country.

"What they are not taking into account is that New Zealand is quite small population-wise; we have incredibly good capability here, good legislation, good cross-agency capability and technology. We have really great support from international partners."

He said this led to a good understanding of crime networks and how the products are getting into the country. Another vulnerability for these groups (referred to as Transnational Organised Crime Group Cells or TNOC cells) is getting the cash out of New Zealand.

"The message today is don't bother coming. We will identify your people, we will identify and break and disrupt your networks, we will go after your assets whether here or offshore.

"Where necessary, we are quite prepared to extradite people back here who are involved in this offending." 

This was a great example of New Zealand's work with other agencies around the world to disrupt harm within communities, Williams said.

"Since 2017 the National Organised Crime Group working in conjunction with NZ Customs Service and overseas Police Agencies have identified, disrupted and dismantled 23 of these TNOC cells. 

"In total this has seen over 80 people facing serious drug dealing and money laundering offences.  Of this 80 just under 40 are overseas nationals from 19 countries, a number of whom received long prison sentences. 

"These groups are intent on pumping as much illicit drugs as they can into our communities causing considerable social harm, crime and victimisation."

New Zealand Customs Service Manager Intelligence Bruce Berry told reporters in 2020 about 1.5 tonnes of illicit drugs arrived on our shores, causing harm in communities. That's at about 1.8 tonnes this year. 

Cocaine can be hidden in baths, machinery and other items, Williams said.

It's reported that among multiple charges a 34-year-old is facing is conspiring with people in Colombia to import cocaine, being a member of an organised criminal group involved with importing a Class A drug, seven charges of importing or attempting to import cocaine and four counts of money laundering.