Power, P Cooks and profit. Methamphetamine changed the criminal underworld forever in New Zealand 20 years ago and the lucrative market keeps evolving.

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It was about 1998 when the first red flags about methamphetamine were raised in New Zealand.

It was a relatively unknown drug at the time, until detectives started hearing stories about standovers and shootings.

The meth market had opened. Soon frontline police staff saw the paranoia and violence first hand.

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Around the same time, Greg O'Connor took a phone call from the partner of a senior gang member.

A former undercover officer who spent months living among criminals in the underworld, O'Connor was now the president of the Police Association.

P had changed everything, O'Connor was told.

His warnings to Police National Headquarters and politicians in Wellington were written off as scare-mongering.

In his opinion, the drug policies of the government still focused on heroin - a drug problem which had all but disappeared with the demise of the Mr Asia syndicate in the 1980s.

"A real policy failure," says O'Connor, who is now a Labour MP.

By the year 2000, it was clear New Zealand had a "major problem" with methamphetamine which O'Connor says was still largely ignored.

A problem which soon overshadowed Mr Asia in every sense.

WATCH: Fighting the Demon documentary
READ: Inside NZ's 20 year meth crisis

Because P was not just a recreational drug issue with the associated health and social problems.

The booming methamphetamine market - and the incredible profits to be made - transformed organised crime in New Zealand.

Money gave them power.

Outlaw motorcycle gangs such as the Hells Angels, the Head Hunters and the Highway 61 took control of the lucrative market.

Some members accumulated millions of dollars of assets, others spent their cash living a fast and loose lifestyle.

The motorcycle gangs ruthlessly guarded their most prized possessions - skilled "meth cooks" with the knowledge and expertise to oversee the manufacturing.

In the early days, meth was cooked in New Zealand in clandestine labs.

A solitary "clan lab" was found in 1998. Four years later, 83 were discovered by police.

While the motorcycle gangs owned the intellectual property of manufacture, the so-called "ethnic" gangs - such as the Mongrel Mob and Black Power - controlled the ingredients.

Traditional gang rivalries had been put aside in the pursuit of money.

Millions of dollars in cash seized in Operation Genoa. Photo / NZ Herald.
Millions of dollars in cash seized in Operation Genoa. Photo / NZ Herald.
Firearms seized like these seized in Operation Genoa are an every day occurrence for drug squad detectives. Photo / NZ Herald.
Firearms seized like these seized in Operation Genoa are an every day occurrence for drug squad detectives. Photo / NZ Herald.

The main ingredient needed for methamphetamine is ephedrine, which can be chemically extracted from pseudoephedrine.

As it happens, pseudoephedrine was the active ingredient in most cold and flu medicines.

"Pill shoppers" - often with clean criminal records - were being used by the gangs to visit pharmacies pretending to be sick.

A packet of Sudafed, for example, cost $14 but sold for $100 on the blackmarket.

Six people each buying five packets a day - $420 from the pharmacy - would be sold for $3000.

This was enough to cook $30,000 of methamphetamine. The profit margins were phenomenal.

Money - and drugs - gave organised crime figures power and influence.

Meth cut through the social divide.

It wasn't just the poor and downtrodden passing a pipe around but educated university students, white collar professionals in downtown office blocks, as well the rich and successful living in leafy suburbs.

Gang members were soon rubbing shoulders with millionaires like Mark Lyon, a property developer.

By 2003, the word "P" was elevated from the underground party scene and into the wider public consciousness.

Several high-profile crimes which shocked middle New Zealand were fuelled by meth.

The murderous robberies by Ese Junior Falealii, 18, who shot Marcus Doig and John Vaughan to pay his drug debts.

William Bell said he was addicted to meth when he brutally murdered three people at the Mt Wellington-Panmure RSA.

And Antoine ) Dixon became the poster boy for P after cutting off the hands of Renee Gunbie and Simonne Butler, before driving north to Auckland and shooting James Te Aute.

Antoine Dixon became the face of methamphetamine in New Zealand. Photo / Glenn Jeffrey.
Antoine Dixon became the face of methamphetamine in New Zealand. Photo / Glenn Jeffrey.

The public reaction forced the hand of the Labour Government led by Prime Minister Helen Clark.

Methamphetamine was upgraded from Class-B to Class-A category drug, which gave police greater search powers and judges could impose longer prison sentences.

Life imprisonment was now the maximum. The Government also announced $6m in funding to set up specialist police "clan lab" teams in Auckland and Wellington.

Too little, too late says O'Connor.

By this stage, methamphetamine had spread far too wide.

Pseudoephedrine was also re-classified as a Class-C drug, with medical exemptions, and as such was still available over-the-counter at pharmacies.

To curb the "pill shopping" pseudoephedrine problem, strict sale guidelines soon came into force.

Pharmacists could only sell a limited number of pills containing pseudoephedrine, as well as keeping a register of people who bought them.

But in a perverse unintended outcome, this created a new opportunity for the sleeping giant of criminal fraternity.

Police have been aware of elements of organised crime in the Asian community in New Zealand since the late 1980s.

From behind a facade of legitimate commerce, the groups work across a range of illegal businesses from money laundering, drug imports and prostitution to credit card fraud, extortion and paua-smuggling.

In many respects, they had been small-time players.

But the boom of P made Asian crime figures in New Zealand a crucial link to a huge, untapped source of pseudoephedrine.

China is the home of ContacNT - a pseudoephedrine-based cold and flu remedy which is easily available over the counter for a few dollars a packet.

As "pill shopping" became harder without attracting unwanted attention, the gangs forged ties with Asian groups to import ContacNT directly from China.

The ingenious ways in which the pink granules were smuggled into New Zealand were limited only by imagination - even disguised as the icing in biscuits.

On one end of the scale, international students studying English were recruited as "catchers" for smaller packages sent in the mail.

At the other end, were shipments in the hundreds of kilograms - of pseudoephedrine and finished meth product - slipping through the border.

In 2006, Operation Major was the biggest drugs bust in New Zealand's history.

Hidden at the bottom of 1000 cans of green paint, police and customs officers found plastic blocks containing 96kg of methamphetamine.

A second shipment from China contained 150kg pseudoephedrine hidden in bags of cement plaster.

Together they were worth a record $135 million. For perspective, the previous largest haul of meth was a little over 8kg.

Detective Inspector Bruce Good with the 95kg of meth seized in Operation Major, the largest drugs bust at the time.
Detective Inspector Bruce Good with the 95kg of meth seized in Operation Major, the largest drugs bust at the time.

The two Chinese men who ran the smuggling ring became the first to be given life imprisonment.

"A veritable flood of methamphetamine makes its way across our borders each year,'' Justice Patricia Courtney told Wei Feng Pan and Ming Chin Chen.

"Users quickly become addicted and the drug has a devastating effect on the personality and function of almost all who use it. It leads to the destruction of relationships, serious domestic violence, street violence and gang violence."

The landmark case was an eye-opener to the true scale of the problem in New Zealand.

It turned out the smugglers had previously brought in at least four other shipments, three of methamphetamine, one of pseudoephedrine.

Even more sobering the huge bust had virtually no long-term effect on the street price of P.

"There was a blip but it was short-lived," Detective Inspector Bruce Good previously told the Herald.

"So we realised that when you take out a syndicate there's another person with just as much greed in their eyes to take their place."

New Zealand's biggest drug bust only scratched the surface.

The depressing words of Bruce Good were published in the Herald's War on P series in 2009, which sought to reveal the true extent of the problem.

The National Party were in power now and John Key had been Prime Minister for less than a year.

By the end of the year, the Government had taken action.

The change which captured the most headlines was the complete ban on over-the-counter sales of pseudoephedrine-based cold remedies.

Pseudoephedrine was now a Class-B controlled drug which carried a maximum 14-year prison sentence.

Critics said the ban was a waste of time. Drug syndicates would simply import ContacNT in larger amounts, so the ban would only affect those with cold or flu symptoms.

The Prime Minister also announced money seized by those who had become rich from methamphetamine would be funnelled back into treatment for addicts.

This was through the Criminal Proceeds Recovery Act 2009 which forces someone to prove how an asset was paid for.

These cases are determined by the civil level of proof, the "balance of probabilities", rather than the much higher criminal evidential threshold of "beyond reasonable doubt".

Another $7 million a year funding was set aside for the treatment of addicts was announced by Key.

In announcing the funding, the Prime Minister referred to an article in the The War on P series about a mother who watched her son cry and beg for treatment, saying: "I am determined to do better for families like these."

The money would fund an extra 60 beds, enough to help treat 1000 people every year. But drug counsellors described the money as a "drop in the bucket" after years of closures of treatment clinics and underfunding.

A working group run by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, was set up and progress reports were published each year.

On the surface, some of the numbers looked good. Seizures of pseudoephedrine were down from a peak of 1.2 tonnes in 2009, to 300kg in 2012.

Similarly, the amount of methamphetamine was trending down from 2006 - perhaps artificially inflated by Operation Major.

The National Government gave itself a pat on the back.

"We believe measures the Government has taken since 2009 have resulted in the supply of precursors being constrained and it is reflected in the statistics,'' Customs Minister Maurice Williamson said in 2013.

But hidden away in one of the Tackling Methamphetamine progress reports was a warning.

Fewer seizures of the drugs used to make methamphetamine were a sign smugglers had changed their methods - rather than less drugs coming into the country as previously stated by Williamson.

The warning came shortly before a record haul of pseudoephedrine was discovered in Auckland.

Hundreds of kilograms of ContacNT were intercepted in Taskforce Ghost. Photo / NZ Herald.
Hundreds of kilograms of ContacNT were intercepted in Taskforce Ghost. Photo / NZ Herald.
Hundreds of kilograms of ContacNT were intercepted in Taskforce Ghost. Photo / NZ Herald.
Hundreds of kilograms of ContacNT were intercepted in Taskforce Ghost. Photo / NZ Herald.

In December 2013, Taskforce Ghost found 330kg hidden in three safe houses and detectives believe another 142kg was imported in May.

Intercepted conversations led to another 248kg being stopped at the Port of Auckland.

At total of 720kg of ContacNT disguised as bags of breadcrumbs or starch smuggled from China by a criminal group who had been under the radar for years.

Williamson said he stood by his statement.

"There's clear evidence that the methamphetamine market is now smaller than it once was and the efforts of the Government are having an impact."

What was to come proved the market was bigger than ever.

The game changed. For a time, organised crime syndicates switched from pseudoephedrine to ephedrine.

This removed one step in the chemical conversion to methamphetamine, making the manufacture process more efficient and carrying less risk.

Then the game changed again.

For nearly 10 years, Operation Major - with nearly 100kg of finished product - stood head and shoulders as the biggest bust.

Then in a 12 month period over spanning 2015 and 2016, there were notable seizures of 40kg, 41kg and 83kg stashes in three separate investigations.

These took the second, third and fourth spots on the all-time record list.

Everything changed in June 2016 when police stumbled across 494kg of meth on Northland's 90 Mile Beach.

Most was packed in bags left in an abandoned campervan, 50kg was buried in sand dunes.

Nearly 500kg of methamphetamine was found in Northland in 2016. Photo / Supplied.
Nearly 500kg of methamphetamine was found in Northland in 2016. Photo / Supplied.
Nearly 500kg of methamphetamine was found in Northland in 2016. Photo / Supplied.
Nearly 500kg of methamphetamine was found in Northland in 2016. Photo / Supplied.

Then a few months later, Customs discovered 176kg hidden inside the framing of freight containers.

A year later, Operation Abseil found 270kg cleverly concealed inside concrete umbrella bases.

Since then, most recently in February, there have been several discoveries of more than 100kg.

What was once a landmark figure is almost routine.

Nothing had changed in 20 years.

A "point" of P - or 0.1g - is still $100. If anything, meth is easier to get now than ever before.

At the end of 2016, John Key resigned as Prime Minister and his Tackling Methamphetamine working group was quietly shelved.

Around the same time, Greg O'Connor retired from the Police Association.

In his swansong tour of the country, O'Connor warned New Zealand was facing a resurgence of the P epidemic.

"The first wave was at the end of the 90s. It sort of caught New Zealand by surprise - the policies were way behind," he told the Herald at the time.

"The legacy of the first wave was well entrenched organised crime. And now, that organised crime has created this new market. We're having a second wave now."

Two other threats have emerged around the same time.

Firstly, the "501s" from Australia - named after the section of the Australian immigration law which allows people to be deported on character grounds.

Some serious criminals have been sent back to New Zealand or the Pacific Islands - where they might have been born - despite living in Australia for most of their lives.

For several years, the police have warned of how these "Kiwis" would return to commit crimes and bolster the professionalism of the New Zealand underworld.

A second report, dated January 2017, anticipated 200 members of Australian gangs which did not have chapters in New Zealand would be deported in the next two years.

These included patched members of the Comanchero, Lone Wolf, Finks, Mongols, Notorious and Descendants motorcycle clubs.

Others belong to Australian gangs which already have an established foothold here, such as the Bandidos and Rebels.

The Comancheros, considered the most dangerous of Australia's gangs, soon announced their arrival in New Zealand.

All done and sworn in ... welcome aboard to my brothers in New Zealand," says the Instagram post by an Australian member of the Comancheros.

"Another Comanchero chapter opened up. We growing stronger and stronger."

Experienced detectives believe the rise of the Australian gangs, who have strong links with global criminal figures and even greater professionalism in criminal tradecraft, have already changed the criminal landscape in New Zealand.

The second new threat is the emergence of Mexican and South American drug cartels, whom the police believe are working with the Comancheros.

In April, the police arrested a number of senior Comancheros on methamphetamine and money laundering charges, as well as seized nearly $4m of assets.

Gold-plated motorcycle seized from Comanchero gang in Operation Nova. Photo / Supplied.
Gold-plated motorcycle seized from Comanchero gang in Operation Nova. Photo / Supplied.
Late model Range Rover seized from Comanchero gang in Operation Nova. Photo / Supplied.
Late model Range Rover seized from Comanchero gang in Operation Nova. Photo / Supplied.
Late model Rolls Royce seized from Comanchero gang in Operation Nova. Photo / Supplied.
Late model Rolls Royce seized from Comanchero gang in Operation Nova. Photo / Supplied.

For decades, China and countries in South East Asia have been the dominant source of methamphetamine for the markets in New Zealand, Australia and Japan.

Since 2016, Customs and police have noticed an upswing in P importations from the West Coast of the United States and Canada.

The methamphetamine is most likely being manufactured in Mexico by the Sinaloa and Jalisco (better known as CJNG) cartels.

New Zealanders pay the highest price for meth in the world and the cartels - notorious for their violence - have taken notice.

To combat the threat, Customs and Police have strengthened ties with law enforcement in the United States.

Customs has recently established a new liaison position in Los Angeles, while a senior police officer based in Canberra, Detective Inspector Tom Fitzgerald, works closely with his counterparts from the Five Eyes alliance.

In recent years, the Canberra relationship has shifted from merely sharing intelligence to investigating cases together with the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission and the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

Now, the DEA plans to open liaison offices in Auckland and Wellington.

"The goal is to make all of our countries safer, as corny as that sounds," DEA agent Kevin Merkel told the Herald.

"We can't do it by ourselves, Australia can't do it by themselves, New Zealand can't do it by themselves. Because, you know, transnational criminal organisations by definition don't do it by themselves either."

In this sense, New Zealand is now the branch office of a multinational corporation said Police Commissioner Mike Bush.

When he started his career 41 years ago, organised crime was the local corner shop.

"That's the evolution of organised crime. This is a global business now," Bush once told the Herald on Sunday. "And it's a threat to our national security."

He made the comments ahead of the 2018 Budget announcement by Police Minister Stuart Nash that 700 of the promised 1800 new staff would be dedicated to organised crime.

And while Bush emphasised the need for New Zealand to work closely with intelligence services and the Five Eyes partner, he also noted Operation Notus which targeted the Kawerau Mongrel Mob chapter and led to 40 arrests.

About 2.4kg of methamphetamine was allegedly distributed over six months - relatively modest in comparison to some of the 100kg shipments stopped at the border in recent years but the effects on a small town are huge.

"We've learned a lot about the damage to small towns - the poverty, the dysfunction. It's taking food out of the mouths of children, clothes off their backs," says Bush.

"We don't understand the issue until after enforcing the law, but that's around the wrong way. More resourcing is required, especially around addiction services."