Customs believe Mexican drug cartels are linked to a multimillion-dollar methamphetamine seizure at the Port of Tauranga, highlighting an "explosion" of organised crime groups targeting New Zealand.
Customs investigations manager Bruce Berry said the seizure was an example of how international crime organisations were targeting the lucrative New Zealand market to peddle large quantities of drugs because of the huge profits to be made.
Berry's comments follow the sentencing earlier this week of two Fijian seamen for smuggling millions of dollars' worth of meth into Tauranga in November 2019.
Noa Grantham Kunaqoro and Taniela Molidegei were jailed for five years and six and a half years respectively in the Tauranga District Court on October 14 after pleading guilty to importing methamphetamine and possession of the drug for supply.
Customs officers found a total of 34kg of methamphetamine stashed in numerous packages in various parts of the container ship Southern Moana, which the men took on to the vessel before it left Fiji.
Kunaqoro imported 3.9kg of the drug worth between $3.9m and $13m, while Molidegei admitted importing 21.09kg of meth, likely valued at between $6m and $21m, the court heard.
Judge Thomas Ingram said he accepted the men were from impoverished backgrounds and were "naive" drug mules enticed to be involved to help support their large families.
Berry said the Customs investigation into the prime movers of the importation was an "active ongoing" matter.
"We think this Port of Tauranga importation is linked to the Mexican cartels, who also have connections with the Canadian-based cartels who operate in Canada and the US markets.
"Interestingly, we are seeing more drugs ending up here because of the Mexican cartels' greater presence in Central and South America than drugs coming from Asia."
Berry said there was no doubt that countries across the Pacific, including Fiji, were being targeted in a bid to entice people to be involved in these types of drug-dealing activities.
"Because of their occupations and backgrounds, these two men were vulnerable to exploitation and the inducement for them was again the opportunity to make money."
Berry said Tauranga and Auckland were on drug cartels' radars and they will exploit any manner of transportation - including ships and their crew - to get the drugs into New Zealand.
"When you can buy a kilo of meth in Mexico for $2500 and sell it here for between $140,000 and $200,000, New Zealand is an extremely lucrative place to peddle drugs."
Berry said that was only the wholesale prices and when the drugs were packaged in gram lots, the drug cartels and gangs were making tens of millions of dollars.
Berry said the "criminal landscape had definitely changed" in terms of drug offending because of the emergence of Australian gangs operating in New Zealand, including members deported here.
"The Mongols, Comancheros and 501 deportees from Australia - and even our own domestic gangs - have shown they're prepared to get into bed with each other when it comes to making money.
"It's all about the money."
He said Kunaqoro and Molidegei knew their actions were criminal.
"This is not a case of wilful blindness as they knew exactly what they were doing was wrong and agreed to run the risk anyway, and now they're paying the price."
When interviewed by Customs, Molidegei said he had previously refused to carry drugs into New Zealand when approached but this time he was "carried away with the money".
He stated he received a bag in Suva containing the drugs, which he brought to the ship by water taxi - avoiding Customs screening - and gave his phone number to his New Zealand contact so they could talk when he arrived in Tauranga.
Aboard the ship he ripped open the lock on the bag, which contained 20 packages of drugs, and hid the packages in the deck workshop but accidentally left one in his cabin.
Molidegei also stated Kunaqoro was given a second bag in Lautoka by someone known to him but he refused to take possession of the bag, and told the person to hide it.
Molidegei said he had previously been given $700 as an enticement on an earlier trip to New Zealand.
During the search of the ship, Customs also found $16,000 in Fijian dollars in Molidegei's overalls and another $5000 in Fijian dollars behind a hatch in the ship.
Kunaqoro said he was given the [second] bag in Lautoka by someone he had not met before and was told to take it on to the ship and to give it to Molidegei.
Inside were wrapped packages, which he knew was "something suspicious".
Berry said those higher up the chain were more difficult to catch because they distanced themselves as much as possible from these importations to try to avoid detection.
However, he said Customs worked closely with its law enforcement partners here and overseas and were determined to catch drug traffickers and put them before the courts.
"We undertake pre-screening risk assessments on the movement of goods, people and vessels and the people onboard them and that also includes at our airport borders."
Berry said Customs conducted targeted risk assessments for all seaports and airports and maintained a presence at regional ports to defeat and deter smugglers.
"Whether that is smuggling cigarettes, drugs or other contraband, we will do our utmost to stamp it out and people need to know that New Zealand is not a soft touch."
Berry said in this particular case the Southern Moana was identified as posing a risk before it arrived in New Zealand.
He said the seizure was the result of "some very good work" by Customs frontline officers in Tauranga and he was extremely proud of their ongoing efforts to protect our borders.
"Unfortunately so far only these two seamen had been charged.
"[But] it is very satisfying to take this amount of social harm off our streets, which we estimate to be up to $42.1m potentially to New Zealand communities."
On October 13, a Chinese national Zili Peng was jailed for four years and two months after he imported 25.5kg of ephedrine into New Zealand, which was also found aboard a ship docked at the Port of Tauranga in June last year.
Meanwhile, Hanmer Clinic clinical director Jill Knowler said she was being informed by clients that meth was easier to access than cannabis.
"We are seeing an increase in a younger age group seeking treatment and this is due to methamphetamine and alcohol use.
"This change in trend has happened over the last year."
Before that, Knowler said, the primary substance people had been presenting for was alcohol, but MDMA use had also increased in the last few months.
However, she said the social harms of meth use was extensive.
"The fracturing of families is of huge concern as parents lose custody of children, homelessness, mental health and addiction problems, health issues and the list goes on."
It was the targeting of young women that Knowler wanted to highlight.
"Our clinicians are getting feedback from young women coming into the service for treatment that they were taken advantage of by men who were involved in the supplying of methamphetamine."
Knowler said these women were often targeted because of their vulnerability due to ill mental health and being young.
"As they themselves fall vulnerable to methamphetamine use, they can lose custody of their children, become homeless and their mental health and addiction issues escalates."