EXCLUSIVE: A red flag was raised when a 25-year-old Auckland rapper flew to the United States shortly after New Zealand came out of level 4 lockdown and returned just five days later. Customs officials found 20kg of methamphetamine in a suitcase which allegedly belonged to him. However, the investigation into how the drugs managed to slip past border controls unravelled what Customs alleges was a corrupt crew of Air NZ baggage handlers. Jared Savage reports.
A crew of Air New Zealand baggage handlers have been arrested for allegedly helping someone to avoid border security checks and smuggle drugs into the country during the Covid lockdown.
Four men who work at the Auckland International Airport were jointly charged with a local rap musician of importing $8 million worth of methamphetamine in May.
If convicted, the offence carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.
In what is believed to be the first known prosecution in the country, the Customs investigation will allege the Air New Zealand staff were involved in a drug smuggling tactic referred to overseas as "rip on, rip off".
For the method to work, drug importers need "inside" men or women at both ends of the flight.
• Shipping container linked to gang vanishes with help of port worker
• The Head Hunters' $1m man in Tauranga
• From Harley Davidson to wheelchair: Inside the downfall of Killer Beez boss
• Patching over: Mongrel Mob leader's brother, nephew join rival Comanchero
• Gangs of New Zealand: Why gang numbers spiked by 50 per cent
• Inside the gang tensions which brought Tauranga to a standstill
• How a Sydney airport brawl changed NZ's gang scene forever
In order to bypass x-ray machines and other security measures, a baggage handler is needed to surreptitiously load the bag of drugs into the plane among other checked-in luggage.
Or unsuspecting travellers get an extra bag tagged to their luggage allowance. Either way, this is the "rip on".
Once the plane lands at its destination, another baggage handler on the tarmac removes the drug-laden luggage before it can be checked. This is the "rip off".
In the case currently before the Manukau District Court, the four Air New Zealand baggage handlers were arrested after $8m worth of methamphetamine was found in Auckland International Airport.
A red flag was raised when a 25-year-old man travelled to the United States on May 2, 2020 - when New Zealand was under Covid level 3 lockdown restrictions - and returned from Los Angeles five days later.
Suspicious of his travel movements given the global pandemic, Customs officials searched his black carry-on suitcase and discovered 20kg of methamphetamine.
Romney Fuki Fukofuka, 25, was charged with possession of a Class A drug to supply and importation of a Class A drug. The Mangere resident listed his occupation as musician and raps under the stage name of Konecs.
Court documents reveal Fukofuka was also charged with conspiracy to import methamphetamine between March and his arrest on May 7.
This alleged offence relates specifically to five packages stopped by the United States Customs Border Protection agency, which concealed a total of 15kg of methamphetamine.
Fukofuka was arrested with Sese Vimahi, a 44-year-old baggage handler, and jointly charged with allegedly importing the 20kg of methamphetamine discovered in the airport on May 7.
Customs continued to investigate and one week later, three more Air New Zealand loaders were jointly charged with the same offence: Daniel John Ah Hong, 26, Mark Anthony Castillo, 23, and George Aloha Taukolo, 29.
A fifth man with interim name suppression was also charged with importing a Class A drug.
All have pleaded not guilty to the charges and will appear again in the Manukau District Court next month.
None of the baggage handlers have been at work since Air New Zealand became aware of the charges, said the airline's chief operational integrity and safety officer, Captain David Morgan.
By the end of October, all but one of the baggage handlers will no longer be employed by Air New Zealand.
"The remaining person's bail provisions do not allow them to contact Air New Zealand," said Morgan.
"Air New Zealand has a strict Code of Conduct. We take any allegations of this kind extremely seriously and have zero tolerance for any behaviour that is found to breach our Code of Conduct."
Morgan said Air New Zealand employees were encouraged to call a confidential "Speak Up" line, which operates 24/7, to report any suspected inappropriate, unethical or illegal behaviour.
As the matter is before the court, Customs investigations manager Bruce Berry was unable to discuss the specifics of the investigation or arrests.
But speaking generally on "insider threats", Berry said organised crime relied on subverting people and processes to smuggle illicit goods through borders
"Whether it's passengers or cargo, organised crime is incredibly agile and always looking for ways to exploit chinks in the armour," said Berry.
"Internationally, insider threats have been around as long as trading posts. But as New Zealand is such an attractive market now, we're starting to see sophisticated criminal techniques being applied here."
The prosecution of the Air New Zealand baggage handlers comes soon after the Herald on Sunday revealed a supervisor at the Ports of Auckland helped shift a suspicious container off the wharf in the middle of the night.
In scenes reminiscent of the popular television crime series The Wire, the container was loaded on to the back of the truck at the port at 1am, soon after it had been flagged for inspection by Customs.
The container purportedly held 24 air compressors from Thailand and Customs wanted to take a closer look at the contents, as the company which imported the freight was set up by a member of the Mongols motorcycle gang recently deported from Australia.
Police and Customs believe a significant amount of drugs was hidden inside and detectives from the National Organised Crime Group are still investigating the "suspicious circumstances" in which the container was taken.
New Zealand has a reputation for being one of the least corrupt countries in the world.
But in Berry's opinion, the arrest of the port supervisor and the recent prosecution of a police officer for leaking sensitive information to a gang, shows law enforcement and industry cannot be complacent to the threat posed by organised crime.
"This kind of corruption is not unheard of internationally but New Zealand has been isolated from it for a long time."