Four foreign nationals involved in orchestrating the smuggling $20m worth of cocaine into Tauranga, the biggest cocaine haul destined for the New Zealand market, have been jailed.
Croatian Mario Habulin, 48, Serbian national Deni Cavallo, 48, and Australian nationals Matthew John Scott, 46, and Benjamin John Northway, 37, were all sentenced in the Rotorua High Court today, receiving sentences between 14 and-a-half years and 27 and-a-half years.
Cavallo earlier pleaded guilty to participating in an organised criminal group and importing the 46kg of cocaine on October 31 2017.
Habulin earlier pleaded guilty to importing cocaine three times, possession for supply, supply, participating in an organised criminal group and money laundering.
Scott admitted 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.
Two of the combined importations together totalled almost 76kg.
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Evidence of how the four men orchestrated the smuggling of $20 million worth of the Class-A drug was revealed in court today after the four men pleaded guilty before the start of their six-week jury trial in June last year.
The court heard parcels of cocaine weighing 46kg were found stashed in a hidden compartment in the hull of the container ship Maersk Antares, which arrived at the Port of Tauranga from Chile on October 31, 2017.
Customs and police officers 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.
Habulin 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 Mount 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.
Following the discovery, police inquiries resulted in further charges against all four men, who played a variety of roles in the drug enterprise.
A previous importation of 30kg of cocaine was discovered, as well as earlier third shipment of an unknown quantity and the two importations totalled almost 76kg.
Crown solicitor Anna Pollett submitted to Justice Grant Powell that life imprisonment sentences were required for Habulin and Scott due to their "significant leadership" roles.
"Mario Habulin was the most involved in terms this organised criminal group and in terms of him organising affairs for New Zealand, and Habulin and Scott were also the greatest enablers of the success of this importation operation," she said.
She also sought starting points of 30 years' prison for Cavallo and 20 years for Northway before discounts for pleas and other factors.
She also argued minimum non-parole periods should be imposed.
Pollett said this offending involved a "significant level of sophistication" and the deliberate targeting of New Zealand as a haven for this type of importation.
"This was all committed purely for commercial gain," Pollett said.
Lawyers for the four men urged Justice Powell to impose lesser punishments arguing their clients' roles in this drug enterprise were not at the level the Crown had pitched.
They also sought significant discounts for various personal and cultural factors, remorse guilty pleas.
Justice Powell sentenced Habulin to 27 years 6 months' prison, Scott to 24 years' prison. and Cavallo received 23 years' prison taking into account their significant lead roles.
Northway was sentenced to 14 years 9 months' prison after Justice Powell said he agreed with the Crown that this defendant played a lesser role in the criminal activities.
The judge also gave Northway credit for not attempting to minimise his actions nor trying to link his personal drug use to his offending.
Each of the men will have to serve at least one-third of their sentences before they can apply for parole.