Alleged drug smugglers accused of bringing 50kg of cocaine worth millions of dollars from Colombia into New Zealand have direct links to high-powered cartels in Medellin, it is understood.
In one of New Zealand's biggest ever drug busts, eight people have been arrested as part of a joint 10-month National Organised Crime Group (NOCG) and Customs sting dubbed Operation Mist.
National Organised Crime Group director Detective Superintendent Greg Williams and New Zealand Customs service manager for intelligence Bruce Berry spoke at a press conference in Christchurch this afternoon.
Bundles of cash in $50,000 stacks, along with blocks of cocaine on scales, and items that the drugs were allegedly transported in were shown to the media on a large screen.
About 50kg of cocaine had been seized either in New Zealand or at overseas ports, police said, with six search warrants carried out in Canterbury yesterday.
Six Colombian nationals - five of whom were working as contractors on Canterbury farms - and one Argentinian have been arrested, while another person was arrested in Auckland.
The joint operation working alongside the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Colombian national police, Spanish customs, and Cook Islands customs service.
"Based on wastewater data, we believe this group was supplying the majority of cocaine into New Zealand," Williams said.
"The investigation is unique as it has linked the importation of cocaine from South America and Spain into New Zealand, as well as money laundering offences in the United States of America."
Williams, who thanked the DEA for providing a lot of resources, as well as the police in Colombia, said the group had been operating for more than two years.
It was a massive blow to the organised crime group and the flow of cocaine into the country, with Williams saying the group was one of the biggest suppliers.
Networks from Colombia brought the drugs into New Zealand, with money quickly being shovelled out of the country to America.
Around $300,000 in cash has been seized, along with crypto wallets, and at least $600,000 had been laundered, police say.
Williams said that they were a significant well-oiled group who tried to push the money out of the country as quick as they could.
New Zealand was being targeted by organised crime because Kiwis pay some of the highest prices for illicit drugs in the world - and vast profits were available to the gangs, he said.
Now, the underground networks are inserting their own people into New Zealand and getting supply lines with local gangs and organised crime.
There is nothing to suggest the farm owners and managers had any knowledge of the illicit operations, police say.
The groups are intent on pumping "massive amounts" of cocaine, MDMA, and meth which is causing widespread social harm, Williams said.
But the gangs are not taking into account that New Zealand has good capability and legislation, with support from international partners, and knowledge of the networks and "who's who in the zoo".
The message today for the cartels, Williams said, is: "Don't bother coming."
Berry said Customs and Police are constantly trying to disrupt smuggling rings.
The problem is not going away, he said, and the "lucrativeness" of the market makes New Zealand an attractive target.
A common method of getting the drugs into New Zealand was hiding them inside other things and putting them in shipping containers.
A heat exchanger, for example, had around 1kg of cocaine hidden inside it and was discovered this month.
Large pieces of machinery, sweets or lollies, the gangs would conceal drugs in all sorts of things, Customs say.
Williams was reluctant to go into details of the networks involved in Colombia.
But "key people in Colombia" have been identified, he said.
Although eight people have been arrested, and phones have been seized, the police are looking at who else is involved. More cocaine could still be en route, from this group, and will be seized by police, Williams added.
The Herald understands that police will allege links to a cartel in the Colombian city of Medellin - once dubbed "the most dangerous city in the world".
Two Canterbury dairy workers appeared in Christchurch District Court yesterday facing charges of importing cocaine on various dates stretching back more than a year.
A 34-year-old man, who was granted interim name suppression, has been charged with conspiring "with persons unknown in Colombia" to import cocaine, seven charges of importing or attempting to import the drug, and four counts of money laundering, totalling more than $600,000.
He also faces charges of being a member of an organised criminal group involved with importing the class A drug.
Ruth Yanid Ramirez Alfonso, 38, from a rural address in Mid Canterbury, is alleged to have been involved in importing drugs going as far back as January 2018.
She has been charged with being in an organised criminal group involved in importing the class A drug methamphetamine, along with six charges of importing or attempting to import cocaine.
The man was remanded in custody without plea to December 1, while Alfonso was granted bail to the same date.
Six others allegedly involved in the drug-running operation have also been charged.
They have been appearing at Christchurch District Court all day.
Christchurch bar owner Rene Bell faces an allegation that he jointly offended with two other men to launder $200,500 in cash.
The 44-year-old was granted bail on several conditions, including not to engage in any cryptocurrency transactions.
His lawyer Rupert Glover made no application for name suppression and he'll be back in court on December 1.
A 29-year-old bar manager, who had been living in Christchurch, appeared from custody this morning on a money-laundering charge, allegedly involving $10,000 between March 29 and September 2 this year.
He was released on bail to come back to court on December 1 by Judge John Brandts-Giesen who also granted interim name suppression so that family members could be told of his arrest.
A 30-year-old from rural Canterbury, facing charges of participating in an organised criminal group to import cocaine, and attempting to import cocaine into New Zealand between May 1 and August 31 this year.
She appeared in the dock from custody and was also granted interim name suppression and remanded on bail without plea to December 1. Bail conditions include surrendering her passport today and being told to stay away from alleged co-offenders.
Felipe Montoya-Ospina, a 34-year-old from outside Christchurch, today pleaded not guilty to eight charges, including importing cocaine last year, and participating in an organised criminal group to import cocaine between 2018 and 2021. He has elected trial by jury.
A 28-year-old man from the Ellesmere district south of Christchurch faces nine charges of importation and one of being in an organised criminal group.
He was granted name suppression and remanded in custody until December 1.
A 24-year-old Canterbury farm contractor accused of being involved in money laundering totalling more than $600,000 was remanded in custody.
The man appeared from custody via audiovisual link this afternoon on charges of importing and supplying cocaine in Ashburton, Christchurch, and Auckland, and participating in organised crime, and four counts of money laundering.
He was remanded in custody without plea until December 1 and granted interim name suppression.
The Crown is seeking to transfer all defendants to be dealt with in the High Court.
Four foreign nationals involved in orchestrating the smuggling of $20 million worth of cocaine into Tauranga, the biggest cocaine haul destined for the New Zealand market, were jailed last year.
Croatian Mario Habulin, 48, Serbian national Deni Cavallo, 48, and Australian nationals Matthew John Scott, 46, and Benjamin John Northway, 37, were all sentenced in the Rotorua High Court, receiving sentences between 14-and-a-half years and 27-and-a-half years.
In May 2016, 35kg of cocaine arrived in New Zealand inside a diamante-encrusted horse head statue, which arrived by plane from Mexico via Hong Kong.
It was, at the time, New Zealand's biggest ever cocaine bust.
The drugs had an estimated street value of up to $14m.