Third person arrested in NZ's largest cocaine bust

A third man has been arrested over the biggest cocaine bust in New Zealand history.

Police revealed at a press conference this afternoon a second Mexican national had been arrested in Christchurch in relation to the $14 million haul of the Class A drug.

A joint Customs and police investigation uncovered 35 bricks of high-grade cocaine, weighing 1kg each. They had been smuggled into the country in a 400 kg diamante-encrusted horse sculpture, which had been freighted by air from Mexico.

Customs and Police display a diamante-horse that contained cocaine worth an estimated street value of NZ$14 million. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Customs and Police display a diamante-horse that contained cocaine worth an estimated street value of NZ$14 million. Photo / Jason Oxenham

This morning a 44 year-old Mexican national and a 56 year-old US national appeared in the Manukau District Court, charged with importing a Class A drug and possession for supply of a Class A drug.

The Mexican man was granted interim name suppression until Monday when he will reappear, while the American man is in the process of reappearing in his attempt to seek name suppression.

Both remain in custody. The second Mexican, who is 29 years old, faces the same charges.

Officers found the drugs inside the horse's head in May, leading to the arrest last night of two men at Auckland International Airport as they tried to leave the country on tickets to Hawaii.

Detective Superintendent Virginia Le Bas said the record bust is being celebrated by police.

"This is a significant win for New Zealand," Detective Superintendent Le Bas said. "This is a great success, we should be proud to have detected it at the earliest of stages."

While the large horse sculpture, just under a metre in height, had been packaged to an Auckland address, it's not clear whether New Zealand was intended to be the drugs' final destination - with an ongoing police investigation trying to get to the bottom of that and whether any New Zealanders are involved.

But police did acknowledge a market for cocaine in New Zealand.

"There is a market in New Zealand, it's not the drug of choice, but we understand from community intelligence there is a market for cocaine in this country and generally, the market is high society people or socialites," Detective Superintendent Le Bas said.

"Recent surveys say about 0.3 percent of the community has used cocaine within a year."
More arrests are likely as police continue to piece together the situation and continuing work with domestic and international agencies.

"With Customs we've worked very closely over the past few weeks, we clearly work with our international partners so that we can get ahead and take these seizures out early," Detective Superintendent Le Bas said. "We work with international police organisations all the time and share information about organised criminal groups."

Detective Super intendent Virginia Le Bas speaks to media. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Detective Super intendent Virginia Le Bas speaks to media. Photo / Jason Oxenham

Customs group manager Jamie Bamford confirmed the package entered New Zealand by air. He said while cocaine is not the most common find, the bust proves New Zealand cannot be used a soft target.

"I just want to celebrate this success and reassure the community that New Zealand's border defences are particularly sophisticated. We're very successful at identifying any sorts of drugs coming in," Bamford said.

"Usually we're picking up methamphetamine, but this just goes to show our defences and intelligence are good to find cocaine, ecstasy, LSD... It's quite a reassuring discovery."

News of the record cocaine bust comes less than a month after New Zealand's biggest drug seizure of all-time, when $494m worth of methamphetamine was discovered after a boat was found abandoned on 90 Mile Beach.

Bamford said there were "a number" of flags which raised suspicion about the horse's head and described the concealment as "sophisticated."

"There were a number of indicators that made us take a deeper look at the consignment and then a number of methodologies were used to identify the drugs inside the horse's head," he said.

"I won't go into what the indicators were but I'll tell you we have the use of dogs and x-ray machines to identify what was inside the statue.

"It was quite a sophisticated hide and the Customs officers at the front line have done a really, really good job."

Customs group manager Jamie Bamford speaks to media. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Customs group manager Jamie Bamford speaks to media. Photo / Jason Oxenham

Police said investigations were ongoing and further arrests were likely.

Earlier, they said they were carrying out a search warrant at a west Auckland address.

Police in Christchurch were also carrying out search warrants at two residential address in Linwood, and two men and a woman are speaking with police.

"This is obviously an extremely large amount of cocaine, and in the past we've only found very small amounts of this drug," Detective Senior Sergeant Colin Parmenter, Officer in Charge, Organised Crime Auckland said.

"Prior to this, the average amount of cocaine seized by Police each year was around 250 grams. What this find tells us though is that there is obviously a demand for it.

"While it's possible that this statue may have been sent on to another country, there's every possibility that the cocaine was destined for the New Zealand market and we would be naïve to think otherwise."

Police said investigations were ongoing and further arrests were likely.

Customs Investigations Manager Maurice O'Brien says Customs has an intelligence-led and risk-based approach at the border, and the seizure is the result of good profiling systems and inspection capabilities.

The joint operation with police and international engagement with other law enforcement agencies proved its worth in advancing the investigation.

"We maintain strong relationships with offshore border partners to share information about illicit trade as they move around the globe," Mr O'Brien said.

"It takes an international enforcement network to disrupt a transnational crime syndicate. This seizure shows our systems are working well regardless of the type of drug or commodity."

Police are not ruling out further arrests as the investigation continues.

Importing the class A drug cocaine is punishable by life imprisonment.

- NZ Herald

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