Customs faces huge tracking task

By Andrew Laxon

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From the Customs Service's headquarters in downtown Auckland, drug investigations manager Bruce Berry points out the window.

"You look at all the containers sitting there on the wharf," he says with a wry smile. "Now which one are you going to look at?"

The question sums up the dilemma facing Customs and police as they try to tackle an explosion of methamphetamine importing and manufacture in the past decade.

Last year, Customs officers seized more than three million pills of pseudoephedrine, the main chemical used to make the drug, compared with about 10,000 in 2000.

Huge seizures are becoming routine. Last October, Customs found 100kg of the pills hidden inside sofas. About two weeks ago, staff discovered 40kg - enough to make about 10kg of P with a street value of up to $10 million - in bags of washing powder.

While 97 of the 100 bags contained real washing powder, three had pseudoephedrine inside.

Mr Berry said the smugglers used all kinds of tricks, from hollowed-out bike frames and the soles of men's shoes to mixing the pills into biscuit filling.

"These guys are always one step ahead of us. Their only limitation is their imagination about where they're going to hide this."

The increasing number of finds probably points to an even greater number of shipments getting through.

Two years ago, the service estimated it might be detecting only about 20 per cent of the pseudoephedrine smuggled into the country, meaning about 11 million pills might be imported each year.

At current rates the number could be higher than 15 million.

Another calculation produces a similar result. Nearly all the pseudoephedrine smuggled into the country comes from Contac NT, a Chinese cold and flu medication that is banned here because of its links with P.

Customs estimates that 2 per cent of all production from the single Chinese factory that makes Contac NT is diverted straight to New Zealand, probably before it goes on sale in China.

That would make about 10 million pills. Either way it is enough to make about 700kg of P or close to two hits of the drug for every New Zealander.

Mr Berry said it explained why multinational organised crime groups were going to such lengths to smuggle in pseudoephedrine - a drug he had not even heard of at the start of this decade.

There was increasing evidence that gangs were switching from pill shopping to direct importation because they got more concentrated pseudoephedrine in bulk.

"All we're seeing now is pseudoephedrine and meth. The same efforts are going into pseudoephedrine that we would normally see for Class A controlled drugs."

The key to cracking the syndicates lay in good detective work by Customs officers and shared information with other agencies, especially the police, who were often chasing the same criminals for other offences.

- NZ Herald

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