A French national who imported almost 24kg of cocaine into Paihia that was brought into the country on a cruise ship has been jailed for 15 years.
Importing nearly 24kg of cocaine into Northland was Plan B for an international drug smuggling ring after its original scheme to get the drugs into Australia on a cruise ship was busted across the Tasman.
French national Alexander Steeve Yelengwe Yonkwa-Dingom was part of the syndicate involved in smuggling cocaine from South America to Australia using cruise ship passengers as drug couriers.
The 28-year-old was arrested, and subsequently charged, after police seized a backpack containing cocaine, with an estimated street value of between $6.8 million and $10.8m, at the Youth Hostel
Association premises in Paihia in December 2017.
Yonkwa-Dingom pleaded guilty to one charge of possession of cocaine in the High Court at Auckland, and admitted further charges of importing cocaine and failing to carry out obligations in relation to a computer search.
Today he was jailed for 15 years in the High Court at Whangārei before Justice Graham Lang.
According to a police summary of facts released to the Northern Advocate following Yonkwa-Dingom's guilty pleas, two French nationals began recruiting people to act as drug mules aboard cruise ships travelling to Australia.
They arranged for four others to be couriers on the cruise ship Astor that was due to arrive in Sydney on November 30, 2017.
The duo arranged a similar role for themselves aboard the cruise ship Regatta which was due to travel from the US to South America, the Pacific and New Zealand and eventually their target country Australia.
Yonkwa-Dingom's role included flying to countries cocaine was destined for to prepare for the drug's arrival.
He flew to the US and began preparation for the operation before travelling to South America and on to French Polynesia.
Drug syndicate members were paid through international money transfers and were able to securely communicate with each other using a cellphone application called "Silent Phone".
Yonkwa-Dingom arrived in Australia on November 9, 2017, and two international money transfers enabled him to set up a Sydney apartment in preparation for the arrival of the Astor and Regatta.
However, Australian law enforcement authorities seized 25kg of cocaine from the four couriers on board the Astor and charged them with importing 25kg of cocaine into that country.
Their arrest and the perceived additional scrutiny from Australian authorities meant the original plan to smuggle cocaine off the Regatta and into Australia had to change.
A plan was then hatched to hand Yonkwa-Dingom the cocaine once the Regatta arrived into the Bay of Islands in early December 2017. Yonkwa-Dingom flew to New Zealand and booked a hostel and a hotel in the Bay of Islands using different identities.
The two French nationals on board the cruise ship cleared Customs on arrival, looked for signs of trouble then returned to the ship and brought the cocaine to shore.
Regatta left for Auckland where a search by Customs of the cabin the two men occupied returned negative for controlled substances but there was a positive drug detector dog indication to a suitcase. However, they were unable to be charged and returned to France.
Police and Customs attention then turned to Yonkwa-Dingom.
Following two weeks of surveillance, both agencies identified where he was hiding the cocaine, executed a search warrant at the YHA premises in Paihia on December 20, 2017, and recovered a backpack containing the drug.
He had checked into the room using the name Richard Ngom.
Yonkwa-Dingom was arrested in Kerikeri and police located a number of items including a cellphone, an iPod, a laptop, rooms keys, and newly bought backpacks. He refused to provide police with the pass codes to access the "Silent Phone".