A mystery meeting on a Brazilian beach has led to a young mum of two being locked up in a Kiwi prison for half a decade, as Mexican and South American cartels try and flood this country with top-shelf cocaine.
Pamela Taina Nascimento was caught attempting to smuggle cocaine into New Zealand in September.
The 23-year-old had travelled to Auckland from Sao Paulo in Brazil, via Buenos Aires. She had swallowed about 40 pellets of cocaine while 44 smaller pellets were located on her - they added up to nearly 1kg with an 85 per cent purity.
She had met a mystery man on the Brazilian beach, who offered her R$12,000 Brazilian reals, which when converted is a little more than $4500 New Zealand dollars, a court heard yesterday.
The cocaine pellets were worth more than $310,000 on New Zealand streets.
Growing up in a town in the southeast of South America's biggest country, Nascimento was raised by her grandparents but had also lost her eldest brother in a shooting two years ago.
She had carried out a drug run before - to Spain - which paid her a similar amount. She used it to help pay for bills and raise her two young children, aged 5 and 4.
However, when she arrived in Auckland on September 28, Customs officers searched and questioned her.
She came clean and revealed the concealed drugs on her body and in her digestive system.
Appearing for sentencing yesterday, a distraught Nascimento was imprisoned for six years and three months.
But, as Judge Philippa Anne Cunningham said, Nascimento was effectively a pawn, having been "preyed upon" by drug international traffickers.
The Herald this year revealed Customs' new target was the highly-profitable drug trade by organised South American criminal groups and Mexican gangs.
The Government helped Customs combat the cartels by allocating an extra $54.2m of operating funding in the May Budget over four years.
"It's all highly organised," Jamie Bamford, the Customs group manager of intelligence investigations and enforcement, told the Herald.
"We think Mexican criminal gangs and cartels sit behind this ... we've seen an uptick in [drug] couriers coming out of South America."
Customs investigations manager Bruce Berry told the Herald there continued to be an increase in passengers and cargo carrying cocaine from the Americas.
He had "solid information" the cartels were responsible.
When Nascimento was arrested she was forthcoming to authorities with information, however, what she provided was of low value, the court heard.
"The cartels don't care about the couriers," Berry said. "This is about money."
The drug busts are also getting bigger.
Just last month police and Customs uncovered the biggest cocaine bust in New Zealand's history after finding more than 190kg of the drug in a container of bananas from Panama.
The increased supply is, in part, because New Zealanders pay the most for cocaine in the world, according to the Global Drug Survey 2018.
On average Kiwis will part with $340 for a gram of the white powder, about $20 more than Australia - the second most expensive country.
Meanwhile in Colombia, users pay just $6.86 per gram of cocaine, while in Brazil it costs $15.50 per gram - the second cheapest price in the world.
Berry said New Zealand was seen as a viable drug market with an attractive high-price. And after a record season for poppies and coca there was an abundance of drugs on the market.
Meanwhile, Nascimento will be eligible for parole after serving a third of her sentence before being deported back to Brazil.
Judge Cunningham said she had "much sympathy" for Nascimento and gave her a discounted prison sentence for personal circumstances.
"The discount is as much for the children as it is as much for Ms Nascimento," she said.
The Brazilian consulate had also aided Nascimento while she was in custody by helping her remain in contact with her family, Judge Cunningham said.
However, in March, the Herald reported that Brazil's consulate in Auckland was telling its nationals they would only serve a couple of years in prison if caught smuggling drugs.
The claim was made in court during the sentencing of Marlon Batista De Macedo, who was stopped at the border last year with up to $1.68m-worth of cocaine in his suitcase.