Guilty pleas at the eleventh hour ahead of the trial of Operation Heracles in which 46kg of cocaine was retrieved from a ship's hull by a dive team 'fishing' in Tauranga's harbour at midnight.

The trial of the biggest cocaine haul destined for the New Zealand market is over before it even started.

Evidence of how four men - two from Australia, a Croatian and a Serb - orchestrated the smuggling of $20 million worth of the Class-A drug was to be aired at a six-week jury trial starting this week.

Parcels of cocaine weighing 46kg were stashed in a hidden compartment in the hull of the container ship Maersk Antares, which arrived in Tauranga from Chile in October 2017.

At the eleventh hour, the final two defendants today admitted to their roles in the importation as the trial was about to start.

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Serbian national Deni Cavallo, 47, pleaded guilty to participating in an organised criminal group and importing the 46kg of cocaine on 31 October 2017.

Croatian Mario Habulin, also 47, pleaded guilty to importing cocaine three times, possession for supply, supply, participating in an organised criminal group and money laundering.


Their guilty pleas came two days after two other defendants, both Australians, also admitted their roles in the smuggling on the eve of the trial.

Matthew John Scott, 45, pleaded guilty to laundering nearly $1.2 million, importing cocaine, two charges of supplying the Class-A drug, possession of cocaine for supply and participating in an organised criminal group.

Benjamin John Northway, 36, admitted possession of 30kg of cocaine for supply, importing cocaine and participating in the same organised criminal group.

The first court appearance after Operation Heracles. From left: Deni Cavallo, Matthew Scott, Benjamin Northway and Mario Habulin. Photo / Andrew Warner
The first court appearance after Operation Heracles. From left: Deni Cavallo, Matthew Scott, Benjamin Northway and Mario Habulin. Photo / Andrew Warner

The four men are in custody before their sentencing hearing in August at which lengthy prison terms are expected.

Their last-minute admissions end the prosecution of the investigation, codenamed Operation Heracles, which featured foreign operatives, a popular party drug, a midnight dive mission and laundering of millions of dollars.

In October 2017, Customs and Police watched as Scott, Northway and Habulin pretended to fish in the Tauranga Harbour in the middle of the night, before Habulin donned a wetsuit and swam to the rudder of the Antares.

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He climbed aboard the stern, then returned about 30 minutes later with two duffel bags and signalled to the others with his torch.

The trio motored back to the boat ramp and unloaded the duffel bags in the garage of a house they rented in Mt Maunganui.

The covert surveillance was the culmination of a five-month investigation. A few hours later, police discovered 46 packets of cocaine weighing 1kg each.

A previous importation of 30kg of cocaine was discovered, as well as a third shipment of an unknown quantity.

Police discovered more than $600,000 at a home in Auckland where the group was based, as well as 5kg of cocaine from the previous 30kg shipment.

The investigation also proved more than $1.4m of cash was laundered.

At the time, the 46kg was the most cocaine smuggled into New Zealand - outstripping the 35kg hidden inside a diamante-encrusted horse head in May 2016.

Just a month after Operation Heracles, Customs and police stopped 24kg of cocaine in Northland.

This diamante-encrusted horse concealed 35kg of cocaine. Photo / Jason Oxenham.
This diamante-encrusted horse concealed 35kg of cocaine. Photo / Jason Oxenham.
Parcels of cocaine weighing 24kg seized in Northland. Photo / Tania Whyte
Parcels of cocaine weighing 24kg seized in Northland. Photo / Tania Whyte

This was surpassed by the 190kg hidden in banana boxes in Auckland International Airport last November; however, this massive shipment was destined for the Australian market.

Although methamphetamine is still the drug of choice in New Zealand, the seizures are proof of increasing trend of cocaine use in recent years.

Customs and police say cartels based in Mexico and South America are behind the upswing in drug smuggling as the organised crime networks are attracted by the profitable markets of New Zealand and Australia.

A gram of cocaine costs $360 in New Zealand, which is nearly four times what Americans pay, according to a 2018 global survey.

"It's all highly organised," Customs investigations manager Jamie Bamford said of efforts to smuggle cocaine into New Zealand in an interview with the Herald on Sunday in June last year.

"We think Mexican criminal gangs and cartels sit behind this. 'There is a glut of cocaine out there, where can we send it? The Kiwis are willing to pay top dollar, let's go', is how the cartels think."

Customs' Jamie Bamford, left, and Assistant Commissioner Richard Chambers at a press conference following Operation Heracles. Photo / Andrew Warner
Customs' Jamie Bamford, left, and Assistant Commissioner Richard Chambers at a press conference following Operation Heracles. Photo / Andrew Warner