The flow of illegal drugs into New Zealand has escalated in recent years. For frontline Customs staff, detecting criminal importers is a game of cat and mouse. Anna Leask reports.
The silver measuring bowl sits on the digital scales on a stainless steel bench, almost overflowing with a mound of white crystals.
Men in equally white boiler suits stand over it.
One of them, his face covered with a protective mask, looks closely at the contents of the bowl, records the weight and writes it on a label, photographing it from various angles.
The other stands ready with a clear plastic bag ready to collect the crystalline product.
It's like a scene out of cult TV show Breaking Bad.
But instead of chemistry teacher-turned drug manufacturer Walter White and his errant sidekick, the men in boiler suits are working for the right side of the law.
The white powder is likely pure methamphetamine and the men poring over it are Customs officers.
Outside their lab - far from the clandestine-style set up the meth would have been made in - a handful of other Customs officers look on.
They are nonplussed though, unflinching about the highly addictive and socially destructive drug in the bowl.
They almost shrug it off.
Because while it looks like a big haul to an outsider, to them it's a drop in a rapidly growing ocean of illicit drugs arriving at New Zealand's borders.
"Five or 10 years ago it would have been like 'wow', but now it's just 'meh' ..." a Customs officer says.
Drug Zealand - what's coming in, and from where
Since 2010 more than 14.5 million grams of illegal drugs have been intercepted by Customs.
That's the equivalent of 60,484 Big Mac burgers, 29,032 blocks of butter, the weight of at least four buses - or 130 former All Blacks captain Kieran Reads.
Paper clips weigh about a gram each - so imagine a pile numbering more than 14 million and you begin to get an idea of how big the issue is.
The drugs have come in by air, by sea and by mail from Kaitaia in the far north to Invercargill in the deep south.
According to Customs data, the most common substance detected between January 2 2010 and the end of October this year was ephedrine, methamphetamine and pseudoephedrine and the stimulant and hallucinogen MDMA, also known as ecstasy.
Ephedrine and pseudoephedrine are both main ingredients in the manufacture of meth, known better in New Zealand as P.
In recent times GBL - a more potent version of liquid ecstasy or GHB - has also edged into the top three with meth and MDMA.
Customs officers intercepted a total of 3,012,574 items containing illicit or illegal drugs - such as prescription medication available outside New Zealand but not allowed here.
The figures for 2019 are preliminary so the figures are likely higher.
"Meth has been at the top for a while," Customs northern ports manager Mark O'Toole tells the Herald.
"With drugs it's peaks and troughs, but it's pretty consistently meth.
"Five or so years ago it was a lot less than today - we've gone from small shipments to larger, multi-kilo shipments.
"More recently meth concealments are becoming more sophisticated: in the past they didn't put a lot of effort into things, into trying to conceal their drugs crossing the border.
"But as they get smarter, we get smarter in what we're looking for and how we're finding things."
The biggest seizure of meth at the border was recorded in September, when 469kg of the ready-to-sell product was found hidden in a shipment of electric motors.
The record-breaking haul came after a joint investigation by Customs and police - such operations have increased markedly in the modern war against drugs - that detonated after they discovered a shipping container holding 60 electric motors each hiding an average of around 8kg of meth and a total estimated street value of $235m.
Additionally, authorities believe the substance would have caused $582m worth of social harm within the community.
O'Toole said the electric motors - which are sitting in a row in a Customs seizures area awaiting their potential day in court if the alleged importers go to trial - were among a handful of devious concealments of late.
In February, 110kg of meth and two handguns were discovered inside golf cart batteries.
In July 2016, 35kg of cocaine, $14m worth, was smuggled into New Zealand from Mexico in a 400kg diamante-encrusted horse head statue.
When you ask O'Toole what the biggest find of his career is, the most unusual, the most complex concealment, he shakes his head.
He can't answer it, he's seen so much during his time with Customs that "it all blurs together".
"Nothing is unusual anymore," he laughs.
"People will use absolutely everything, try absolutely everything to bring drugs in.
"That's why we don't just use one tool or technology, we have multiple resources and as concealments change, so does that technology."
NZ's most popular drugs
What he does know is that what would have made his eyes bulge five years ago - a few kilos of meth perhaps or a million bucks worth of cocaine - wouldn't even make him flinch now.
The volumes coming in now are huge, and growing.
"Take MDMA for example," O'Toole said.
"It spiked in January  and we thought it was because of the summer festivals - but it kept going.
"It's not just illicit drugs - we also get medicines requiring prescriptions; some are totally legitimate and people can provide prescriptions to MedSafe.
"Then there's people buying off-the-shelf types of medicine they don't have a prescription for which is incredibly dangerous.
"They are buying them from online stores that might not be using legitimate ingredients and they are putting themselves at risk."
In minor cases the parcels are seized and the offender is sent a letter explaining why they won't get their goods.
"Most people are quite horrified, others are well aware of what they are doing but take their chance in smuggling things across the border."
Illegal prescription medications sit at number 11 on the table of most smuggled drugs in terms of the volume intercepted.
The top portion of the list also include psychoactives, cocaine, steroids, cannabis - leaf and seeds - synthetics and amphetamines.
Lower down the list morphine, mephedrone, opium and heroin make an appearance.
And far less common is LSD, date rape drug rohypnol, painkillers oxycodone and pethidine.
Interestingly, one of the drugs du jour in the USA, connected to around 30,000 deaths including Michael Jackson, Tom Petty and Prince, has only been intercepted once in little old New Zealand.
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid used as a pain medication - or together with other medications for anaesthesia.
Illegal users often mix it with heroin or cocaine for a rapid onset and effects lasting several hours.
Customs have found just three grams of the lethal drug - said to be 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine - since 2010.
Kiwis 'like our uppers'
"New Zealand has a different drug appetite, a different palate - we like our uppers, we like our amphetamines," explained Jamie Bamford, the head of Customs' investigations.
"We're not massive on opioids, heroin.
"Our concern is if drug trafficking organisations decide to push that stuff into New Zealand an create a market.
"If there's a real profit to be made and it's easy to traffic, we may see it."
But Bamford said the drug is not just dangerous to people choosing to chase its high.
It can be absorbed transdermally (quickly absorbed through the eyes and mouth) including by any Customs staff processing or testing the substance.
"Fentanyl poses a real risk to our frontline officers," he explained.
"Fentanyl is a very dangerous narcotic."
So we know that a huge amount of drugs are flowing into New Zealand every day, week, month.
But where is this crap coming from?
"It changes," said O'Toole.
"With meth we were seeing it from China, but more recently it's coming from other Asian
"A lot comes in from the Americas - North and Central - and Europe is the main supplier of MDMA.
"We're finding more international syndicates involved because drug prices in New Zealand are on a higher spectrum than other countries, there's more money to be made so there's more competition."
He said sometimes the drugs came in piecemeal, while other suppliers took a "big bang approach".
"They do it one go rather than multiple streams where there is more risk of being caught," O'Toole said.
The majority of the drugs were seized in Auckland, but given the city houses the country's main international airport, air freight and mail centres, that's not a surprise.
And those who send it to the smaller entry points thinking there will be less staff, less focus, less danger of being caught are entirely misguided.
"People may think that by sending stuff to Christchurch, for example, that no one's going to find it, that we don't have the capability," said O'Toole.
"But we certainly do - we use the same intel system, the same training, the same process all around the country."
Under their eyes
There are 17 ports in New Zealand where Customs roam, probe and discover the illicit and illegal.
There's the big three - Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch - and then Kaitaia, Hamilton, Tauranga, Rotorua, New Plymouth, Napier, Palmerston North, Picton, Nelson, Lyttelton, Timaru, Queenstown, Dunedin and Invercargill.
Outside the main cities the most drugs are found in Queenstown - but it's mainly cannabis seed by volume and prescription meds by incident numbers.
O'Toole said there was no way to know what was getting past Customs.
"When someone gets an illegal product through they generally don't share it on social media or go around telling everyone," he said.
"But if they succeed, they will generally try to do it again and it's only a matter of time and they will get caught, people definitely get complacent.
"It might be their lucky day today - but it won't be their lucky day tomorrow."
The ultimate goal would be for Customs to cut the smuggling industry at the neck - and they do a lot of work with other agencies around the world to stop drugs ever leaving the country of origin.
O'Toole said his people worked closely with overseas agencies to share intel on everything smuggling related - drug types, trends, concealment methods.
Through the constant and vital information sharing with the global partners, Customs officers here knew what to look for and when.
That's how they knew to dig deep into the electric motors, the golf carts.
"I think we're getting smarter and smarter," said O'Toole.
"We learn from what we see ... we think about what we can do differently to do this better in future.
"In recent times there has been an increase in drugs intercepted at the border and whether that continues we really can't tell you - but when things change we adapt quickly.
"But then when we are successful in one import stream, people will shift and we have to go with it.
"There's never a dull day ... it's important that we try to think one step ahead."
Gadgets galore - a game changer for Customs
Keeping one step ahead are the team at the Customs Air Cargo Inspections Facility near the international airport.
The massive warehouse is a hive of activity as a constant flow of consignments are delivered for checking by a swathe of outside courier companies and the mail centre.
A mix of intel and instinct sees parcels sent to ACIF for scrutiny and the process starts with an x-ray.
If the image is fine, if there's nothing dodgy spotted, the parcel goes on to the recipient.
But if alarm bells ring for any officer, the package will be opened and checked thoroughly then approved for delivery or seized.
The seized gear may be drugs, it may be weapons - stun guns, knuckle dusters, knives and other prohibited maiming instruments.
It could be bulk tobacco for an importer who has every intention of selling it on and no
intention of paying the legally required tax.
It could be rip-off designer gear, cash.
The list goes on - and all of it can be spotted by an eagle-eyed employee.
This is the first line of defence for Kiwis, this is a place where protecting communities drives every minute of the day's work.
It's a layered approach that also encompasses Police, Biosecurity, Immigration and the likes - all agencies working together to stop the nasties filtering through the border.
"People may think we're only looking for drugs," said O'Toole.
"We obviously have a particular interest in drugs but there is a full range of things
Customs is responsible for keeping the community safe: "The first layer of defence."
Crime pays - how Customs funds drug testing
Part of that layering - and funded entirely by proceeds of crime - is a specialist testing lab, exhibiting room and top notch gadgets to help the COs identify drugs.
The ESR lab enables substances to be checked over in real time and scientists can confirm whether the white powder is cocaine or something innocuous or even a new type of illicit substance.
In the exhibit room where the boiler-suited staff are examining and bagging items for criminal prosecutions, samples can also be taken and confirmed.
And out in the piles of mail there are two machines that can work out whether a package contains something illegal.
The FirstDefender beams high energy light at solid and liquid substances to identify if they contain explosives, toxic industrial chemicals, chemical weapons, narcotics, precursors, white powders and so on.
It can pick up on at least 14,000 known substances and means staff can rapidly and accurately determine what's inside the hollowed out books, kids toys, packaging.
And then there's the piece de resistance - a New Zealand first in fact.
It's being used daily at the moment to detect whether there is any trace of any drug on any package.
Customs officer Braden Harris explains it enthusiastically - his newest baby is a trace detector that basically picks up the presence of illicit or dangerous substances at a nanogram level.
That's one thousand-millionth of a gram.
Think about that for a second - if a paperclip weighs a gram, it would be one-thousand-millionth of that.
"Think of a cube of sugar," says Harris.
"Put it in an Olympic-sized swimming pool and this will pick up a tiny minute invisible particle of the sugar.
"It picks up trace elements before we even open something, it's amazing, we are able to determine what we're looking and have a quicker turnaround.
"It's a game changer ... we're using it 20 to 30 times a day at ACIF.
"It means we can get packages out quicker and we're becoming more confident."
Never ending - the war on drugs
Between 2010 and this year Customs officers logged more than 29,500 incidents where drugs were found in 3,012,574 items at the border.
About 68 per cent off the illegal substances were found in mail destined for addresses around the country.
Just under 30 per cent was nabbed at air or sea ports.
A portion of that was found either on people or luggage at Auckland International Airport.
Customs have staff on site 24/7 and their work is constant in the departure and arrivals area.
They are trained to spot people who may have something to hide, whose behaviour is not quite right indicating they may need to be spoken to or checked out.
Like the ACIF team, the airport staff have an endless list of things they have found on passengers.
Live animals, dead animals, a plethora of food - that gets pushed to Biosecurity NZ.
People suspecting of entering the country for false, nefarious or dodgy reasons is passed on to Immigration.
That leaves a decent-sized handful of drugs, weapons, tobacco and cash - among other prohibited items - for Customs staff to weed out.
The manager at the airport for all things Customs is Craig Chitty.
He's a second generation officer - following in the footsteps of his father who worked for the agency for 48 years.
He loves the job, the people, the fact that no two days are ever the same on the border frontline.
The three main items his team seek are drugs - naturally - tobacco and cigarettes and non-compliance around cash.
"The volumes we deal with are smaller compared to the cargo teams and probably will always remain that way," he said.
"We're one of the cogs, we're part of the process."
Chitty's crews have had some decent finds in recent years.
In April they nabbed a man coming in from Eastern Europe with almost 11,000 cigarettes on his person and in his luggage.
Cigarettes are not prohibited but anything over the limit has to be declared and excise duty paid.
The man stuck out like a proverbial sore thumb, wearing a bulky jacket and moving oddly.
You would too if you had boxes of fags lining your pant legs and the entire inside of your top-half clothing.
"He made himself too obvious," said Chitty of the man, who is still before the courts here.
"Corrections officers start to pick up on what's normal and what's not - when you deal with a lot of people who don't have a problem you start to see things that are not as normal as they should be."
Drug mules rampant at NZ borders
In May this year, Chitty's team stopped 22kg of cocaine and meth getting into New Zealand after separate passenger finds within hours.
Customs estimates the potential social harm that would have resulted if the drugs filtered into the community at more than $27m.
On May 5, a Hamilton man, 30, and an Auckland woman, 20, arrived from Argentina and were snapped with seven kilograms of cocaine paste - with a street value of $2.1m - in the bases of their two suitcases.
In an unrelated incident just hours later, two Canadian women aged 21 and 26 landed on a flight from Hong Kong.
A search of their baggage found an estimated 14.9kg of crystal methamphetamine in their four suitcases.
On the street that would have fetched upward of $7.5m.
It's worth noting here that when an individual is charged with the importation and possession for supply of a class A controlled drug like coke or meth, they face a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.
Many seem to think the gamble is worth it.
Chitty said the majority of drugs these days were found concealed in luggage rather than inside humans.
"We haven't seen a lot of internal concealments for a while, but sometimes there is a trend.
"Then it will drop away and a different trend will come in. But it's generally in bags."
In 2011, a drug mule made international headlines when her work turned fatal.
Colombian woman Sorlinda Arirtizabel Vega made a 10,300km flight from Buenos Aires to Auckland carrying half a kilogram of cocaine in her stomach.
She passed Customs without issue, a photo of her at the border even shows her smiling and relaxed.
But soon after one of the 26 packages of the drug leaked into her body and she was dead 37 minutes after being admitted to Auckland Hospital's emergency department.
Chitty said Vega's deadly courier attempt was a rare case - but couriers in general were not.
He estimated that a major courier was pinged at the border every four to six weeks.
He's proud of that, and hopes all his staff get to experience the feeling of taking a player off the dangerous field of drug smuggling.
"There's nothing better than seeing a young officer who's just got a good seizure and seeing their face," Chitty said.
"You never forget your first major seizure, it's the best moment."
Chitty remembers his well.
He discovered a man with 1.4kg of amphetamine in his shoe, which had been carved out so all that was atop the sole was drugs and his foot.
He laughs about the amount now.
"That was in 1998, that was a really big seizure back then," he said.
Cat and mouse - Customs vs the world
"We're trying to make New Zealand an unattractive market to feed, really," explained Bamford.
The biggest change he has seen across his career is around meth.
"The explosion in methamphetamine being directed to New Zealand, the change from manufacturing it in New Zealand to it coming straight into the market," he said.
"They used to essentially bring in the ingredients (commonly referred to as precursors) and cook meth up in clandestine labs - so it really was like Breaking Bad.
"But there has been a shift towards product that is ready for market as soon as it arrives."
This year has been a record year for meth, with just over a tonne found since January.
"There's also a huge amount of MDMA, an increase in cocaine - but much of that is destined for Australia and I don't think we are a huge player in that market.
"Our adversaries are becoming ingenious, well funded, sophisticated.
"Every which way you can imagine to get drugs in has been tried."
The adversaries Bamford speaks of are gangs, organised crime groups - huge Mexican cartels, European dealers, massive players from North America and Asia.
They choose New Zealand because for some reason, we pay a lot more for our drugs - primarily meth - than other countries.
"One of the huge changes were seeing is moving from small time Four Square local grocer-type of crime groups to big multi-national supermarket chain.
"And we've got little gangs hooking up with huge cartels."
The increase in some drugs and emergence of new product in New Zealand wasn't about demand, Bamford revealed.
Rather, users were just sheep lapping up what was being pushed in from around the world because of the willingness of some Kiwis to pay an exorbitant price to put the trash into their bodies.
"It's not necessarily demand driving it, it's not addiction," Bamford said.
"We have got huge groups trying to compete with each other and gain territory."
Bamford said Customs was constantly upping its game, changing tactics, trying to thwart the drug trade as much as possible.
"When we start to have success in one particular stream, we see them change and evolve," he said.
"It's a constant game of cat and mouse."
grams of illegal drugs intercepted by Customs since 2010
packages containing illicit or illegal drugs intercepted
is the biggest meth seizure of meth, found inside electric motors in September