A family-based criminal enterprise manipulating travellers into illegally smuggling tobacco into the country from the Cook Islands has been busted by customs.
The activity involved 79.6kg of intercepted tobacco and $113,422 in evaded duties & GST over at least 18 months, a Customs spokesperson said.
A mother and son have been arrested for their connection to the Auckland-based syndicate.
A 34-year old male, believed to be the ring's organiser, was yesterday arrested at Auckland Airport as he returned from Rarotonga.
His mother, aged 52, was arrested this morning after police and Customs investigators searched residences this morning
"Several stolen vehicles were recovered during the search, and small amounts of cannabis, MDMA, and cocaine were seized," a statement said.
The criminal syndicated has been under investigation since earlier this year, as New Zealand Customs Service worked with the Cook Islands Customs Service (CICS) and the Cook Islands Financial Intelligence Unit (CIFIU) to target the group smuggling large quantities of tobacco and cigarettes, and suspected money laundering associated with the smuggling.
The investigation and arrests should serve as a warning to both criminal syndicates and travellers that Customs targets tobacco smugglers, Customs Investigations Manager Bruce Berry said.
"Criminals or opportunists may assume Customs isn't concerned about travellers who try to smuggle undeclared tobacco, but that's not true – we have a team that specifically targets the organisers of cross-border revenue fraud.
"We urge travellers not to bring in undeclared tobacco for others."
He acknowledged the "incredible work" of the CICS and the CIFIU, who had been closely involved in the investigation since its beginning, as well as the assistance of NZ Police.
CIFIU's Head Phil Hunkin said the operation was an excellent example of agencies working together.
"New Zealand and Cook Islands law enforcement regularly meet and exchange information to combat national and transnational crimes," he said.
"We will also continue to target the criminal finances to ensure that crime does not pay."
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CICS' Comptroller Xavier Mitchell confirmed the service would continue to work closely with CIFIU and the New Zealand Customs Service, to combat national and transnational crime.
"This is a great result which highlights the benefits of working collaboratively and sharing intelligence," he said.
Customs urged anyone suspicious about someone smuggling cigarettes to call 0800 4 CUSTOMS (0800 428 786) or Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111.