14 people charged today, 24 in total, after months-long investigation into drug smuggling

An ongoing investigation into alleged drug smuggling offending at the New Zealand border has concluded today with a further 14 people arrested and charged, with millions of dollars’ worth of assets including houses, vehicles and bank accounts also seized.

A total of 24 people have been charged as a result of a six-month joint investigation by the NZ Police’s National Organised Crime Group and NZ Customs investigating vulnerabilities at the New Zealand border and, in particular, Auckland International Airport and the Port of Auckland.

Nineteen search warrants were carried out today across Auckland in relation to this operation, resulting in 14 arrests.

Millions of dollars in assets have been seized including 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 have also been restrained. Thousands of dollars in cash and small quantities of methamphetamine have also been recovered today.

Operation Selena commenced in June 2021 and had its genesis following Customs’ Operation Santana in April 2020, when a number of people, including four baggage handlers, were charged in relation to smuggling 20kgs of meth into Auckland from Los Angeles Airport.

This investigation has covered multiple phases involving drug smuggling into New Zealand’s borders from Tonga, Malaysia and the USA.

In August 2021, 5 people were arrested after a container sent from Tonga to the Ports of Auckland was found to contain 30kgs of methamphetamine which was packed and disguised as taro and cassava.

Two of those charged were individuals who allegedly either worked at, or transported containers from, the Port of Auckland. Two King Cobra gang members and a gang associate were also charged. Two firearms were also seized during search warrants along with $20,000 in cash.

Last month, Police and Customs announced the arrests of 14 people, including six baggage handlers, in relation to a criminal syndicate headed by King Cobra members allegedly smuggling or conspiring to smuggle close to 500kgs of methamphetamine into Auckland Airport from Malaysia.

The group were allegedly involved in the failed smuggling attempt of 200kgs of methamphetamine that was intercepted at the Malaysian border in October 2021.

Nineteen search warrants were carried out today in Auckland in relation to further alleged drug smuggling between Los Angeles Airport and Auckland Airport, which also involved the use of baggage handlers.

Fourteen people have been charged in Auckland in relation to this criminal syndicate, which allegedly involved unchecked items being placed on aircraft flying out of LAX and into Auckland Airport.

Police will allege that unchecked items were placed in the cargo holds of aircraft flying to Auckland before being removed from the aircraft where the alleged offenders would bypass security and take the drugs out of the airport.

Six of those charged today are, or have been, baggage handlers working for Air New Zealand.

Additionally to the six charged, three King Cobra gang members and two associates have also been charged in relation to this offending.

This syndicate are believed to have been smuggling drugs from LA since the start of this year and have allegedly conspired to import more than 100kgs of methamphetamine. This would have caused nearly $124m worth of social harm in New Zealand.

45kgs of meth has been seized by Police and Customs in relation to this alleged criminal syndicate along with three firearms.

Operation Selena found alleged links between a number of these drug syndicates, with some people charged today, having previously been charged in relation to previous drug syndicates.

Detective Inspector Paul Newman says these drug smuggling syndicates once again show that gangs continue to be at the centre of this type of offending with absolutely no care or regard for the destruction it causes within our communities.

“I would like to highlight the great work by our Police and Customs’ investigators in identifying the vulnerabilities at our border. We’ve been working closely with Air New Zealand over the course of this investigation. This partnership has been important in being able to progress enquiries and getting the results we’ve achieved today.

“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.

“These issues are not unique to New Zealand. We are working with our offshore partners and sharing information with the aim to assist them in tightening security and making it harder for these criminal syndicates to operate at overseas borders.

“We will also continue to work closely alongside our partners at Customs to investigate and prosecute any offending at our borders involving organised criminal groups. This operation has successfully resulted in the disruption of criminal syndicates allegedly conspiring to import hundreds of kgs of methamphetamine into our country, which would have caused devastating ongoing harm to our communities.”

Bruce Berry, Customs Manager Intelligence, says Operation Selena highlights how organised crime is actively seeking to manipulate existing systems within the trade supply chain by recruiting insiders that intentionally circumvent security and border processes, which are designed to keep all of us safe.

“Organisations within the supply chain have an important role in helping us protect New Zealand. Businesses know what their normal looks like – by reporting suspect shipments, situations or interactions to Customs they can help to build further intelligence and stop cross-border crimes. “We continue to work closely with industry, including across airports and ports who have been very cooperative with such investigations.

“Customs has a specific focus on targeting this type of crime at both our own borders and international borders to prevent shipments from reaching our shores as well as tackling the organised criminal groups at both ends of the spectrum. Our international relationships have been instrumental in helping to achieve these results in New Zealand.”

Adam Parks, HSI Attache to Oceania, said “today’s result demonstrates the threat posed by corrupt insiders within global trade and travel systems. This vulnerability is effectively mitigated through close coordination among international partners, as exemplified in Operation Selena.”

Air New Zealand’s Chief Operational Integrity and Safety Officer, Captain David Morgan says the airline has zero tolerance for such offending.

“Organised crime impacts many parts of the community and we don’t want it in our workplace. We will continue to work closely with Police, NZ Customs and other relevant agencies to help stamp it out, to protect our people and our communities,” he says.

“We will also continue to encourage and support all our employees to do the right thing and report any suspicious behaviour.”

As a result of today’s search warrants, 14 people have been charged with importing, conspiring to import and possessing to supply methamphetamine.

They are all due to appear in the Auckland District Court.

If you see suspicious activity or behaviour at the border then you can report it confidentially to Border Protect on 0800 937 768 (0800 WE PROTECT).

/NZ Police Public Release. This material from the originating organization/author(s) may be of a point-in-time nature, edited for clarity, style and length. The views and opinions expressed are those of the author(s).View in full here.