Belinda Feek is a NZ Herald reporter

Abandoned boat leads police to record $448m haul of methamphetamine

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Police aren't ruling out the possibility an international drug ring is at work after Northland officers made the largest meth seizure in New Zealand history.

Three men charged in connection with the methamphetamine haul have appeared in Kaitaia District Court.

The trio, aged 19, 26 and 31, are charged with possession of methamphetamine for supply and importing methamphetamine

Judge Sharp remanded the men in custody till July 6 and granted interim name suppression.

Worth nearly $500 million, police found the 448kg of P in the back of a campervan. The discovery came after members of the public reported suspicious vehicles in the area, and people trying to launch boats off the Far North's west coast.

Northland police district commander superintendent Russell Le Prou said their investigation so far hadn't shown evidence of an international deal.

"This is without a doubt, the largest seizure of methamphetamine in New Zealand," Mr Le Prou said.

"We received notification of suspicious behaviour in the past few weeks, and that has allowed us to get to this point."

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This is what 448kgs of methamphetamine looks like. Photo / Supplied
This is what 448kgs of methamphetamine looks like. Photo / Supplied

Police said observant locals called police after noticing the occupants of several vehicles acting suspiciously in the area for the past fortnight, and trying to launch boats off the west coast.

Early on Sunday morning police found a boat abandoned on 90 Mile Beach, with a number of mesh bags on board.

They began searching for a Toyota Prado and a rental campervan, as the occupants had been seen trying to launch boats in the area.

Members of the public told police that the men driving the campervan and the Toyota had been offering large amounts of cash in exchange for help to launch the boats.

While police were on 90 Mile Beach recovering the boat, the Toyota Prado drove past. The driver failed to stop for police and a pursuit began. The vehicle stopped a short distance away at the Ahipara Golf Course.

A 31-year-old man and a 26-year-old man from Auckland were arrested and taken to the Kaitaia Police Station.

Several hours later, police stopped the campervan at Totara North.

In the back, officers saw what appeared to be numerous bags of methamphetamine.

The 19-year-old driver and the campervan were taken to the Kaitaia Police Station, where a further search of the campervan found numerous suitcases and bags. Inside the suitcases and bags were dozens of resealable plastic bags containing methamphetamine.

Mr Le Prou says the seizure outstrips the total 334kg of methamphetamine seized in New Zealand last year.

"Wherever this methamphetamine was headed, it was going to cause harm, and it's thanks to the Kaitaia community, who were not going to tolerate this, that we've managed to stop the harm from this massive haul of meth," he said.

The methamphetamine has since been removed from the Kaitaia Police Station and investigations are now under way into where it came from.

Mr Le Prou confirmed the drugs were found in the campervan and appeared to have been imported into New Zealand.

"There is some indication of salt on the bag and we're sort of assuming from the circumstances that it's been picked up from the scene. The accused are charged with importing methamphetamine."

The abandoned boat on 90 Mile Beach that led to the record-breaking methamphetamine haul.
The abandoned boat on 90 Mile Beach that led to the record-breaking methamphetamine haul.

Mr Le Prou couldn't confirm where the meth had come from but Customs and police are investigating to confirm the offshore component and to see if anyone else from New Zealand was involved.

Mr Le Prou said he couldn't be too specific about the "suspicious behaviour" locals noticed, but said the fact they were being asked and paid to help launch boats was an indication.

"There is a number of other things, which I don't want to give away but what I would say is the great part about this is the community just kept adding to the picture about suspicious behaviour and then it took a diligent sergeant to put this information together and say 'there's a bit more to this'.

"And of course finding an abandoned boat on 90 Mile Beach with some gear in it: boats aren't normally abandoned like that. And then the Prado drives past, which is one of the vehicles we had associated with [the boat]."

Police stopped the vehicle, and that, said Mr Le Prou, "lead to some pretty cool stuff".

Police and Customs believe the drugs were retrieved from the water off 90 Mile Beach.

Customs investigations manager Maurice O'Brien says Customs will work with police on the investigation.

Three men will appear in the Kaitaia District Court this morning, jointly charged with importing and possessing Class A drugs for supply.

Police Minister Judith Collins said the bust was "wonderful". She had been given a heads up on the operation last night.

"It was so exciting - local police working with a local community. I think it has all the hallmarks of when the Rainbow Warrior bombers were caught, it's basically local people saying to the police, 'oh, this looks a bit funny.'"

Ms Collins said it was "absolutely" concerning that such a large amount of drugs were in New Zealand, and in the next few days more details would emerge.

"But I wouldn't be surprised if there was gang involvement."

It was so exciting - local police working with a local community. I think it has all the hallmarks of when the Rainbow Warrior bombers were caught, it's basically local people saying to the police, 'oh, this looks a bit funny.'
Judith Collins

Asked if it was concerning that any boats used had not been picked up coming into New Zealand waters, Ms Collins said doing so could be difficult, particularly if boats had not been in ports here.

"I think there's still work going on about exactly what was happening. But it's pretty clear that there was a pickup from either a yacht or a container ship or something like that that had been organised.

"And I'm sure once the details come through we will all sit back and think, well these are significant risks but I would also say to offenders and people planning to do this - watch out, the locals are watching you, and will, thankfully, talk to police and let them know."

Asked if any boat could have come via the Pacific Islands, she said it "was probably further north than that", but she was not sure of the location.

Ms Collins said this afternoon she had not received updated information on the meth bust, including where the drugs may have originated.

Prime Minister John Key said the size of recent meth seizures had been "alarming".

"I think they indicate to us that there is more product coming in, and today's work by the police might answer some of those questions.

"We have been concerned about some anecdotal evidence of more P on the streets."

Asked about the availability of P precursors in China, Mr Key said his understanding was it wasn't illegal to buy them in China, but was illegal to have them sent to New Zealand.

"I think our authorities have been speaking to the Chinese authorities, but it is not illegal for someone to go and buy it over there."

Mr Key said the police should be congratulated.

"What it shows you is the extra resources and authority that we have given them, is allowing them to be successful, because this is the second very significant haul you have seen in recent times.

"I think it also answers some of the questions of where this precursor is getting in to New Zealand, and where the police need to focus their attention."

Mr Key said, according to limited information given to him, a boat that may have been used by the criminals did not go through Customs, but was moored offshore.

Labour leader Andrew Little said New Zealand had a meth problem, something that was well established and not helped by a lack of police resourcing.

"We are going to see more of this I suspect. We need a police force that is supported and equipped and geared up to go after that insidious drug."

Meanwhile, the Police Association said more investment needs to be made to tackle New Zealand's growing P problem and organised crime.

Police Association President Greg O'Connor says police and the public need to be congratulated in the part they played to prevent the massive haul getting to market.

However, the sheer size of the bust gave an indication to just how large the problem is, he says.

" ... This bust will give New Zealanders some indication of how big the market is for criminals to attempt this sort of importation. The extent of the P problem is becoming apparent to middle New Zealand through the issue of 'P houses', where evidence is found that the drug has been smoked."

Mr O'Connor says further investment needs to be made in both tackling organised crime and in drug treatment facilities and education so demand is reduced.

"P and organised crime go together, and the P problem is evidence of the extent of organised crime activity in New Zealand. Believing that a P problem can be confined to a certain segment of society is folly, as the issue with rising violence and P houses is showing."

Police would like anyone who may have noticed suspicious activity by anyone travelling in a Toyota Prado with a boat or travelling with a campervan in the Far North over the past two weeks to contact Kaitaia police on (09) 408 6500.

Information can also be given anonymously to Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111.

Previous large drugs busts

2006 - Operation Major 10 was named for the previous largest methamphetamine bust in New Zealand, when 95kg was seized at Auckland Airport.
March 2015 - Detectives and customs investigators working on Operation Wand seized 83kg of meth, with an estimated street value of up to $83m, following search warrants around Auckland. The haul included the discovery of $20m worth of meth at a clan lab in Pakuranga.
March 2015 - In Operation Sorrento, police and customs seized $40 million of methamphetamine while carrying out searches across Auckland.
Combined, Operation Sorrento and Operation Wand lead to the arrests of nine people - seven Chinese or Hong Kong nationals and two New Zealand citizens - who are charged with a combination of methamphetamine related charges, including importing, supply and possession.
March 2016 - Customs found 40kg of methamphetamine in a shipping container at Ports of Auckland. The drugs were hidden inside marble table-tops. More than $1m cash, and cars, including a Ferrari, a Lamborghini, a BMW, a Porsche and a Mercedes Benz, were also seized. Four men - two New Zealanders and two foreign nationals, were arrested and faced charges related to the importation and supply of the drug.

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