Operation Mist: Former top cop praises police's 'fantastic work' after cocaine bust, weighs in one why NZ is becoming a cartel target

A former top cop has praised the "fantastic work" by police and border control after one of New Zealand's largest cocaine busts netted a staggering 50 kilograms of the Class A drug.

It was announced on Thursday that 50 kilograms of cocaine had been seized in New Zealand and at overseas ports following an intensive, 10-month-long investigation, Operation Mist.

Six properties were raided across the Canterbury region on Wednesday, resulting in the arrests of eight people - six Colombians and one Argentinian, National Organised Crime Group director Det Supt Greg Williams said on Thursday afternoon. An additional person has been arrested in Auckland. 

In executing the warrants, $300,000 of cash, three ounces of cocaine, and a number of cryptocurrency wallets were also seized.

It's understood the alleged drug smugglers have direct links to cartels in Medellín, the capital of Colombia's Antioquia province. Key individuals in Colombia have been identified by local police, with further arrests expected. Williams noted that Colombian authorities have played a crucial role in the operation. 

Speaking to The AM Show on Friday morning, Lance Burdett, a former personal protection officer and lead crisis negotiator with the New Zealand Police, praised the "fantastic work" of the roughly 70 officers and Customs staff involved in the sting. 

"The one thing about this country is that police and customs work together and they do fantastic work in the background, unseen. The work that they do is at the cutting edge of technology, of use of people… a bust like this would've been ongoing for some time - it can take two, three, four years. I think we should be confident in that fact," Burdett told The AM Show.

He said he is not surprised by the size of the haul, noting that organised criminal groups are extremely adept at concealing narcotics using a wide variety of methods. 

"The size of it doesn't surprise me - if you're going to have a go, have a go. People bring drugs in through all sorts of means. When I was around the Drug Squad years ago, they were dissolving it in paint and then painting it onto windows, and [they] dry out the paint and scrape it and put it into a solution. They're always coming up with inventive ways," he explaind.

Burdett acknowledged it is not entirely clear how many concealments make it through Customs undetected and infiltrate New Zealand communities.

"How do you know?... I've heard everything from 10 percent is getting caught through to 100 percent."

However, Burdett says he is "reasonably confident" the majority of shipments are getting picked up at the border, noting there's a myriad of ways police and customs collaborate "to overcome those things".

Speaking at a press conference on Thursday, Det Supt Williams said Operation Mist is a unique investigation as it has linked the importation of cocaine from South America and Spain into New Zealand, as well as money laundering offences in America. He added that the operation has "dealt a massive blow" to the organised crime group and subsequently to the supply of cocaine into Aotearoa. The group was allegedly one of the "significant suppliers" of cocaine into New Zealand, with the drug selling for a far higher price here than in other parts of the world.

In his experience, Burdett says it's unusual that New Zealand is now viewed as a prime target for business expansion by the Latin American cartels, but noted that drug use is prolific among our communities. 

"I think it's like any other business - how do you grow your business? You diversify, you find new markets, you go onto new products - it's essentially a business that's growing," he said. "A dollar is better than no dollar. You've got to look at where the opportunities are.

"Unusual, I think, for Latin America to see New Zealand as an opportunity, so that might indicate perhaps - and we are amongst the world's, per head of population, highest drug users."

About 50 kilograms of cocaine and large quantities of cash were seized in the sting.
About 50 kilograms of cocaine and large quantities of cash were seized in the sting. Photo credit: Supplied

In 2016, the social cost from illicit drug use in New Zealand was estimated to be $1.8 billion. This included the harm experienced by the individual, harm to family and friends, harm to the community and the costs of intervention. The majority of social harm was linked to dependent use. Similar studies considering the social cost of all substance use in the country estimated a total of $6.5 billion of harm, according to research by the New Zealand Drug Foundation

The Drug Foundation notes that cannabis is the most commonly used illicit drug in New Zealand, while tobacco and alcohol are the drugs that cause the most harm. The last published Ministry of Health survey on illicit drug use, which was conducted over a decade ago in 2007/08, found that use of other drugs such as LSD and opiates was not widespread. In 2012, fewer than 1 percent of teenagers had been using drugs including methamphetamine, LSD and heroin in the past year.

According to the Drug Foundation, cocaine is not widely available in New Zealand, and is very expensive due to low supply. Comparatively, methamphetamine is relatively cheap, widely available, and is often sold as cocaine.

Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, New Zealand Customs Service Manager Intelligence, Bruce Berry, said roughly 1.5 tonnes of illicit drugs arrived in the country last year - that's at about 1.8 tonnes this year. 

According to the police, a kilogram of cocaine in Colombia could be made for about $2500 and sold for $170,000. 

"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," Det Supt Williams said on Wednesday.

But Burdett says the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic will have escalated drug and alcohol use as people try to navigate a period of uncertainty and instability. Many people have been unable to work during lockdown, and a number of businesses in Auckland, the epicentre of the outbreak, have reported huge losses due to ongoing restrictions. He says a lot of people are trying "to get through".

"There seems to be an increase in drug and alcohol use and all sorts of both legal and illegal drugs as people try to get through this uncertain time - the work I do around deescalation shows globally violence is increasing 30 percent - look at New Zealand and the amount of violent incidents lately," he said.

"The world is trying to find its place - money's getting tighter, we're being asked to stay at home, we're being told to do things - and that kind of control that's come in so quickly we're starting to feel it personally."