The fate of four men connected to a $20 million cocaine bust in 2017 culminated in jail terms. Sandra Conchie reveals more details about their offending.

New Zealand must not be seen as a "soft touch" for international drug syndicates, said a High Court judge as he handed down "stern sentences" to four cocaine offenders.

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Justice Grant Powell made the comments in the Rotorua High Court on Tuesday as he handed down hefty jail terms to four foreign nationals on various drug charges.

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The charges stemming from the biggest cocaine bust on record destined for the New Zealand market and a five-month covert police investigation of the men's criminal activities.

Justice Powell said he agreed with Crown solicitor Anna Pollett that New Zealand had clearly become a more desirable market for cocaine suppliers especially given the enormous profits to be gained.

"It is important that New Zealand is not be seen as a soft touch by international syndicates who have identified New Zealand as a 'deliberate target market' for cocaine."

Justice Powell said it was clear Croatian Mario Habulin, Serbian national Deni Cavallo and Australians Matthew John Scott and Benjamin John Northway, had come to New Zealand with the sole purpose of engaging in cocaine importation and dealing offences.

This was drug offending was at the highest level, which had inflicted "significant harm on the state and the community", he said.

Justice Powell said stern sentences were needed to send a "clear deterrent message".

The Crown summary of facts revealed the four men were under close police surveillance from August 2017, as part of the National Organised Crime Group's investigation named "Operation Heracles''.

The men were under constant watch, and their conversations bugged, including one in which Scott and Habulin discussed options for sourcing cocaine from South America.

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The investigation culminated in their four offenders' arrests after Habulin, Scott and Northway retrieved 46kg of cocaine hidden in the container ship Maersk Antares after it arrived in Tauranga from Chile on October 31, 2017.

Police watched as Habulin, donned in a wetsuit, swam to the rudder of the ship, climbed into the bulkhead and retrieved two duffel bags containing the drugs.

Photographic evidence gathered of the parcels of 46kg of cocaine seized in October 2017. Photo / File
Photographic evidence gathered of the parcels of 46kg of cocaine seized in October 2017. Photo / File

A few hours later police raided Scott's rented Mount Maunganui house and seized the 46kg of cocaine.

The next day, during a search of Scott and Northway's Auckland address, police found another 5kg of cocaine and cash totalling $623,627.10.

Customs and the police investigation proved more than $1.4 million of cash was laundered.

It remains the biggest seizure of cocaine in New Zealand, and in court, it was revealed there were, in fact, three cocaine importations, one of an unknown quantity.

Deni Cavallo (left) and Mario Habulin were sentenced in the Rotorua High Court. Photo /File
Deni Cavallo (left) and Mario Habulin were sentenced in the Rotorua High Court. Photo /File

Habulin, 48, earlier admitted importing cocaine three times, possession for supply, supplying the drug, participating in an organised criminal group and money laundering.

Cavallo, 48, also pleaded guilty to participating in an organised criminal group and importing 46kg of cocaine on October 31, 2017.

Matthew John Scott (left) and Benjamin John Northway were sentenced in the Rotorua High Court. Photo /File
Matthew John Scott (left) and Benjamin John Northway were sentenced in the Rotorua High Court. Photo /File

Scott, 46, admitted laundering nearly $1.12 million, importing cocaine, possession for supply, two charges of supplying the drug and participating in an organised criminal group.

Northway admitted charges of possession of 30kg of cocaine for supply, importing cocaine and participating in the same organised group.

Justice Powell said the evidence clearly showed Habulin, Cavallo and Scott performed leadership roles in the enterprise.

Habulin was jailed for 27 and-a-half years, Scott received 24 years' prison, and Cavallo received a 23-years jail term, while Northway was sentenced to 14 years 9 months' prison.

They must serve at least one-third of their sentences before they can apply for parole.