Saturday, April 20, 2024

Police message to criminal networks: Don’t bother coming

A 10-month operation targeting the importation, sale and supply of cocaine and associated money laundering activities has seen 50 kilograms of cocaine seized in New Zealand and overseas. 

In a joint statement, NZ Police and the NZ Customs Service confirmed the arrest of nine people following a series of search warrants executed yesterday.

Police said the criminal network investigation, codenamed Operation Mist had been running for up to two years in New Zealand.

“Yesterday eight people, including six Colombian nationals and one Argentinian national, were arrested following six search warrants in Canterbury,” said National Organised Crime Group Director, Detective Superintendent Greg Williams.

A ninth person was arrested as Police conducted three search warrants in Auckland. In total, more than 60 charges have been filed relating to cocaine importation and supply, participating in an organised criminal group, and money laundering.

The two people arrested yesterday have appeared in the Christchurch District Court, and the remainder are due to appear today. Police say further arrests are expected.

“The joint investigation has involved nearly 70 New Zealand Police and New Zealand Customs Service staff from several workgroups including the South Island Customs Investigation Team, National Organised Crime Group, Asset Recovery Unit and High-Tech Crime Group, supported by Police and Customs international liaison networks,” said New Zealand Customs Service Manager, Intelligence, Bruce Berry.

“Teams worked alongside international partners United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Colombian National Police, Spanish Customs Service and the Cook Island Customs Service,” he said.

“Operation Mist has delivered a massive blow to an organised crime syndicate operating in Christchurch and overseas, who are considered to be one of the significant suppliers of cocaine into New Zealand. Based on wastewater data we believe this group was supplying the majority of cocaine into New Zealand,” said Det Supt Williams.

He said the investigation was unique as it had linked the importation of cocaine from South America and Spain into New Zealand, as well as with money laundering offences in the USA.

“Five of the Christchurch-based Colombian nationals arrested were working as contractors on farms in Canterbury.”

“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,” Det Supt Williams said.

Over the last two years a total of 50 kilograms of cocaine has been seized at international ports or at New Zealand’s border.

It will be alleged by Police that the criminal enterprise had money laundered at least $600,000.

“In the termination phase, we seized approximately $300,000 in cash, 3 ounces of cocaine and a number of cryptocurrency wallets, one of which contains $70,000. The investigation continues and we expect more assets.”

“Transnational Organised Crime groups are specifically targeting New Zealand, because we pay some of the highest wholesale and retail prices for drugs in the world, generating huge profits for them. To maximise these profits, these groups are inserting their own people into New Zealand who set up importing pathways, distribute to local gangs, and move the money out of New Zealand as quickly as they can.  We define these groups as Transnational Organised Crime Group Cells or TNOC cells.

“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. 

“But what they are not taking into account is that New Zealand is a small country population wise, with very effective tools and cross-agency capability.  Through ongoing enduring relationships with our international partners, we have a very good understanding of international networks and the methodologies being used to import illicit products in and move cash out.  Simply put it doesn’t take us long to identify these TNOC cells and rout them out.”

Detective Superintendent Williams said the message to criminals today was “don’t bother coming”.

“We will identify your people, we will break your networks, we will seize what assets you have, whether here or overseas, and when caught your people can expect to spend considerable time in our jails.”

“Operation Mist reiterates the importance of our transnational partnerships with law enforcement agencies across the globe in our common ongoing efforts to dismantle organised crime groups and the enormous harm they cause in our communities,” he said.

“Customs and Police are constantly looking to disrupt how these groups operate. As they continue to adapt and grow, we will continue targeting these groups and the individuals that align themselves with them. New Zealand is one part of the illicit supply chain and it is through expanding our own law enforcement networks that we can have a lasting disruptive effect on organised crime,” added Mr Berry.

Both men said that today’s announcement demonstrated how the DEA, led by its Legal Attaché Offices around the world, and our multiple foreign law enforcement partners can come together to successfully combat transnational organised crime and drug trafficking activity.

“The trafficking of cocaine into New Zealand by South American cartels will be detected, and this should serve as a warning to criminals everywhere who are attempting to bring drugs into New Zealand that they are no match for collective law enforcement co-operation.”

Police Minister, Poto Williams, praised the efforts of both New Zealand agencies involved in the sting operation.

“New Zealanders have the right to feel safe in their homes and their communities. This crackdown will go a long way to making New Zealanders safer by tackling the sale and supply of illicit drugs and serious money laundering activities that cause so much harm in our communities,” she said.

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