Police in Operation Mystic allege that Xavier Valent, also known as Harry Whitehead, was at the top of a drug syndicate that imported a tonne of drugs - methamphetamine, MDMA, cocaine and ephedrine - into New Zealand over a three-year period. He was arrested in Italy in February and is currently in Covid-19 quarantine after being extradited to New Zealand.
The alleged "Mr Big" of an international drug syndicate which police believe smuggled more than a tonne of drugs into New Zealand has been extradited from Italy, despite the complications of travelling in the Covid-19 era.
In February this year, the police arrested 10 people and seized $1 million cash in an investigation codenamed Operation Mystic.
The alleged drug syndicate regularly imported large amounts of methamphetamine, cocaine, MDMA and ephedrine over a three-year period, a total of more than 1000kg, police say, although the "key player" pulling the strings was living overseas at the time.
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The 31-year-old New Zealand man was arrested at Italy's border on an Interpol warrant, and held in custody as the Covid-19 pandemic devastated the country.
He fought the extradition application but was unsuccessful in the appeal courts, so the Herald can now reveal National Organised Crime Group detectives flew to Italy to escort Xavier Valent back to New Zealand two weeks ago.
Also known as Harry Whitehead, Valent faces 94 serious charges of importing Class A and Class B drugs and possession of those drugs for supply. If convicted, the maximum penalty is life imprisonment.
As well as allegedly importing methamphetamine from countries like Mexico, Valent is charged with manufacturing the Class A drug locally in New Zealand by arranging for ingredients and materials to be supplied to a Northland meth cook.
On his return to New Zealand, Valent was taken to Paremoremo Prison, north of Auckland, where he remains in isolation in accordance with quarantine rules for international travellers.
He appeared in the Auckland District Court by audio-visual link and was remanded in custody.
The three detectives who travelled to Italy to uplift Valent will be released from managed isolation facilities this weekend.
Although Valent was living overseas, Operation Mystic alleges he was in complete control of the drug importation syndicate and sent daily instructions to his associates on the ground in New Zealand.
These messages were sent through the Wickr app, which offers end-to-end encryption for users and therefore cannot be intercepted through the usual police surveillance methods.
The drugs were kept in stockpiles by trusted "storemen" who would repackage them, for "runners" to deliver to buyers. Cash from the drug sales would be sent overseas through money remittance dealers.
Of the nine others arrested in New Zealand in February, four have admitted their roles in Valent's alleged syndicate and been convicted of various drugs charges.
One of the "storemen", Hugo Alarcon Ramos, from Chile, pleaded guilty to importing more than 20kg of methamphetamine, as well as 26kg of MDMA powder and 50,000 tablets between August 2017 and February 2020.
He also admitted being in possession of 200,000 MDMA tablets, along with a prohibited semi-automatic rifle, as well as selling methamphetamine, ephedrine and MDMA.
In September, Justice Grant Powell sentenced Alarcon Ramos to serve at least half of a 12-year prison sentence.
Another of Valent's alleged "storemen", Jose Mari Torres Macalalad, has also pleaded guilty to serious drugs and firearms charges. He was sentenced Friday to 12 years in prison, although will be eligible for parole after 4 years, 9 months.
In a statement announcing the Operation Mystic arrests in February, Detective Inspector Paul Newman described the quantity of drugs allegedly imported by the syndicate as "significant".
"New Zealanders are using about 13kg of methamphetamine a week according to recent wastewater analysis, so a tonne of methamphetamine or its precursor ephedrine equates to more than a year's worth of national consumption," he says.
"By arresting and stopping this syndicate's key player, along with his alleged associates, it will go a long way to reducing the amount of this drug being imported into New Zealand, and preventing the harm it causes to our communities."
More than $1 million in cash, several expensive vehicles and firearms – including a military style rifle - were also seized.
"Removing the drugs from circulation is only part of the solution. We will strip the assets of those who import and deal drugs. Our reach offshore through our law enforcement partners and our own New Zealand Police liaison network means we will find these criminals and they will be held to account."