Auckland woman jailed for smuggling 19 million cigarettes into country

She helped smuggle $18.7m in tobacco revenue.
She helped smuggle $18.7m in tobacco revenue. Photo credit: Newshub

An Auckland woman has been jailed for three years for her part in smuggling more than $18.7m of tobacco revenue into the country. 

Hua Yi Zhu, 50, was sentenced at the Auckland District Court on Thursday for smuggling 19,419,400 cigarettes and revenue fraud of more than $18.7m in tobacco revenue spanning a four-year period. 

Zhu's sentencing marks the successful completion of Operation Whitethorn - a Customs investigation into a long-running tobacco smuggling enterprise.

Operation Whitethorn began in 2018 when Zhu's husband Yu Zhi Hu was identified supplying large amounts of cigarettes to wholesale purchasers. In March 2020, Hu was sentenced to five years and three months' imprisonment for smuggling cigarettes in shipping containers from China, using their legitimate furniture business as cover.

Operation Whitethorn involved Customs officers using surveillance, detailed analysis of trade and financial data, cargo examinations and search warrants to uncover the multi-million dollar fraud, locating $4.15m in cash at three Auckland addresses. 

Customs also partnered with the Police's Asset Recovery Unit to seize over $5.5m in cash, bank accounts, property and vehicles as a result.

Customs Investigations Manager Cam Moore welcomed the sentencing.

"This is the latest conviction in a string of successful Customs investigations into large-scale illicit tobacco and money laundering.

"Operation Whitethorn has been the largest ever cigarette smuggling operation in recent Customs and New Zealand history.

"This final sentencing shows that Customs will take every effort to disrupt the illicit trade in cigarettes and seize criminal proceeds. We are fully focussed on disrupting and dismantling criminal networks in the tobacco black market."

If you have suspicions about someone involved in illegal smuggling, call 0800 WE PROTECT (0800 937 768) or Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111.