A senior member of a violent Mexican cartel was arrested in a DEA sting which uncovered large amounts of methamphetamine smuggled into New Zealand and the United States.
The high-ranking member of the Cartel Jalisco New Generation, or CJNG, was caught in Romania and extradited to the US to face drug trafficking charges following a globally coordinated investigation.
"Offshore activity [redacted] has led to the arrest of a high-level cartel member in Romania. The cartel member is believed to be responsible for moving large amounts of narcotics into the United States and New Zealand," according to a Customs briefing in July 2020
"The joint operation also included an international controlled delivery from the United States to Auckland, which resulted in one arrest in New Zealand and led to the furtherance of the investigation. To date, the international investigation has yielded 11 criminal arrests and seizures totalling 76kg of methamphetamine and 3kg of cocaine."
Court documents obtained by the Herald show the sole arrest in New Zealand was of a 39-year-old woman from the United States.
Ivone Alvarez flew into Auckland with her teenage daughter in October 2018 and changed accommodation 15 times over the next 70 days.
Surveillance teams watched her exchanging drugs and cash with another United States citizen, who then left the country, and Alvarez was arrested in December 2018 as a "catcher" for a courier parcel sent from California.
The package was inspected en route by US Customs officials in Hawaii, who found five parcels of methamphetamine weighing 1kg each.
At the bottom of the supply chain, Alvarez pleaded guilty to conspiracy to import a Class A drug and in September 2019 was sentenced to four years and six months in prison. She has since been deported to the United States.
At the top of the supply chain, the senior CJNG cartel member was arrested in Romania in March last year and extradited to the United States.
The existence of the previously unreported case was uncovered in intelligence briefings released under the Official Information Act, and is another example of the growing cooperation between local law enforcement and overseas partners to tackle organised crime.
Two years ago, the Herald revealed the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) established a branch office in New Zealand because Mexican and South American drug cartels were attracted by the lucrative profits to be made from methamphetamine and cocaine.
A kilogram of methamphetamine worth $1500 in Mexico could be sold in New Zealand for between $120,000 and $180,000 depending on the market.
Since 2016, the CJNG has been linked to at least nine Customs and police investigations in New Zealand. Another one was linked to the Sinaloa Cartel.
In one case linked to CJNG, about 113kg of methamphetamine was concealed in a shipment of frozen avocado pulp from Mexico.
The CJNG was formed in 2011 as a splinter group of the Sinaloa Cartel but rapidly expanded in size and influence to match, if not eclipse, its parent group as the most powerful cartel in Mexico.
The US Department of Justice declared CJNG to be one of the five most dangerous transnational criminal organisations in the world in October 2018.
The senior CJNG cartel member was arrested in Romania just a few months before two New Zealanders were caught up in a separate DEA investigation into the alleged drug trafficking of the Hells Angels motorcycle gang.
Marc Patrick Johnson and Michael Murray Matthews, both New Zealand citizens, were arrested with the president of the Bucharest chapter of the Hells Angels.
The pair were caught in a sting operation in dramatic footage captured on a drone-mounted thermal image camera.
Matthews is a patched member of the Hells Angels in New Zealand and Johnson has a long history of methamphetamine manufacture.
After their arrests the DEA asked New Zealand police to arrest 62-year-old Miles McKelvy in Auckland as part of the alleged conspiracy to import cocaine into New Zealand.
He now faces a hearing in the Auckland District Court to decide whether he will be extradited to the United States to stand trial.