Police anticipate more arrests will result from the dismantling of a large drug syndicate made up of Auckland border workers and gang members.
The organised criminal group has allegedly smuggled hundreds of kilograms of methamphetamine into New Zealand over the course of this year.
Air New Zealand baggage handlers and King Cobra gang members are among 24 people arrested and charged with the importation of drugs from Malaysia, the United States and Tonga at Auckland International Airport and the Port of Auckland.
Millions of dollars’ worth of assets, as well as cash, firearms and drugs have been seized in multiple search warrants across the city on November 17 and December 8.
Drugs were smuggled in through unchecked luggage placed in the cargo holds of aircraft and by being disguised in containers at the Port of Auckland, police said.
These then bypassed security, and in at least one case, were loaded onto vehicles waiting at a nearby carpark for distribution into the community.
Suspicious activity detected among baggage handlers at the airport prompted a joint investigation between New Zealand Police and Customs – Operation Selena – in June.
The operation is ongoing and Customs predict more arrests.
“New Zealand is an attractive market and organised criminal groups are looking to push their products in our market,” said Bruce Berry, Customs Manager of Intelligence.
“I do not rule out any further arrests. It’s going to continue.
“Our message is simple to those considering or already involved in this activity – you may not be on the radar at the moment, but we’re coming to find you and we will find you.”
The investigation has already uncovered multiple phases of drug smuggling into New Zealand’s borders from Tonga, Malaysia and the USA this year.
Five people were arrested in August after 30kg of methamphetamine was found in a container sent from Tonga disguised as taro and cassava.
Among those charged were people who allegedly worked at, or transported containers from, the Port of Auckland and two King Cobra members.
Last month, 14 people were arrested in relation to a drug ring operating out of Auckland Airport. The group are accused of smuggling or conspiring to smuggle close to 500kg of methamphetamine from Malaysia on various incoming flights.
The syndicate was allegedly headed by King Cobra members and involved six baggage handlers. All 14 people denied the charges and some have been named.
On Wednesday a further 14 people were arrested over alleged drug smuggling between Los Angeles Airport and Auckland since the start of this year.
The group allegedly conspired to import more than 100kg of methamphetamine, which police said would have caused nearly $124m worth of social harm.
“This type of offending is highly concerning not only because of the harm the drugs cause when they enter our communities, but because the ability to place unchecked items onto aircraft threatens the integrity and security of air travel,” said Detective Inspector Paul Newman.
Nineteen search warrants were carried out in relation to Wednesday’s arrests.
Among assets seized were two Auckland properties, five vehicles including a 2019 Ford Raptor valued at more than $60,000, and a Harley Davidson.
Bank accounts totalling hundreds of thousands of dollars were restrained.
Thousands of dollars in cash and small quantities of methamphetamine were also recovered.
Newman said gangs have been using their influence to “subvert” people at the border to work for them and to corrupt systems.
“These issues are not unique to New Zealand. We’re working with international partners … to try and identify and shut down these criminal groups.”
Berry said organised crime globally has taken the opportunity to move in and recruit during the lull from Covid.
“This is a bit of a wake-up call.
“The risk environment has changed so dramatically in the last 5 to 10 years, we can no longer rely on … distance to protect us.
“We have to educate in New Zealand what organised crime looks like … to make our people more resilient.”
Newman said it would be “naive” to think the offending was limited to Auckland.
The 24 people arrested are moving through the court system.
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