Four men have been arrested after $20 million in cocaine was seized in Tauranga.
A five-month long inquiry by Customs and police uncovered 46kg of the drug - the largest single seizure of cocaine in New Zealand - at an address in Tauranga early this morning.
"Customs commenced the operation after an investigation into smaller methamphetamine seizures, resulting in several arrests, identified persons of interest believed to be involved in smuggling and distributing Class A drugs and money laundering," police said.
The two organisations joined forces to carry out investigative work and established that a cocaine shipment would be offloaded from a commercial ship near Tauranga.
"The ship arrived from Chile late on Tuesday, October 31, and the syndicate approached the vessel under the cover of darkness, retrieving the cocaine from a hidden compartment on the exterior of the hull," police said.
Search warrants executed in Tauranga, Mt Maunganui and residential addresses in Auckland early this morning culminated in the arrests of two Australian men, a Croatian in their mid-40s, and one Serbian national in his mid-30s.
The four men appeared in the Tauranga District Court this afternoon accused of importing cocaine and possessing cocaine for supply.
The men, who all appeared in the dock together, did not enter any pleas and were granted interim name suppression.
The men were due to reappear in the Tauranga District Court tomorrow before the case would be transferred to Auckland.
The court heard the arrests came as a result of an operation which started in 2015.
A further 5kg of cocaine and 1kg of methamphetamine were located at an Onehunga address along with a large amount of cash.
"Inquiries have linked this to an alleged previous importation which included a further
30kg of cocaine," police said.
"As a result the two Australian and the Croatian nationals will face additional charges relating to this."
Customs group manager intelligence, investigations and enforcement Jamie Bamford said the investigation reaffirms the value of intelligence and partnerships in piecing together information to dismantle a criminal enterprise.
"NZ is being targeted by international crime syndicates as a market for cocaine.
"Our intelligence suggests an increase in demand and use, and this goes hand-in-hand with the increase in seizures we're making at the border.
"Customs focuses on the maritime border, and our regional ports. This outcome couldn't have been achieved without our partnership with police and the determination and skill of our officers."
Police assistant commissioner of investigations, Richard Chambers, said today's seizure is hugely significant.
"These arrests have dismantled a transnational crime syndicate attempting to profit from a drug that would have caused a great deal of harm within our communities."
He said that this is the largest single seizure of cocaine in NZ, and that the shipment was destined for NZ.
"During the course of the inquiry evidence has also been uncovered of a sophisticated money laundering operation sending hundreds of thousands of dollars out of NZ through international criminal money remitters.
"Inquiries continue and I am confident that further arrests will be made as evidence is uncovered, assessed and actioned," Chambers said.
"This operation is another good example of the close working relationship we have with Customs, our international law enforcement partners, and the whole-of-government approach to combating drug-related harm in our communities."
The seizure would have caused "significant destruction" had it made it into the community, police said.
Customs group manager of intelligence investigations and enforcement Jamie Bamford and Police Assistant Commissioner of investigations Richard Chambers have addressed media at a stand-up at the Tauranga Customs Inspection Base at Sulphur Point.
"We are very happy this product has been taken out of circulation. It would have caused significant destruction," Chambers said.
He said the arrests had dismantled a transnational crime syndicate.
The ship was in seaside at the port when the cocaine was taken off.
Chambers said there was nothing to indicate anyone on the ship was aware of what was going on.
"This was an effort by a syndicate to target New Zealand because we pay high prices," Bamford said.
"It's all about greed."
Investigations were continuing into how the money was being moved.
Bamford said the people arrested in Tauranga had travelled down from Auckland.
He said the drugs were found in a seachest, which is a compartment by the rudder that mechanics use.
Chambers said there has been an increase in the amount of cocaine seized in New Zealand. Police would be "looking closely at the assets accumulated through this offending".
"We expect it would have been distributed throughout our country and distributed far and wide."
The arrested men were temporary visitors to New Zealand, not residents.
A significant number of police officers were involved in the investigation and the raids.