Auckland drug ring bust - 24 people arrested, millions in assets seized

Miriam Burrell, NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Wed, 8 Dec 2021, 3:41pm
Detective Inspector Paul Newman and Customs Manager of Intelligence Bruce Berry. (Photo / NZME)
Detective Inspector Paul Newman and Customs Manager of Intelligence Bruce Berry. (Photo / NZME)

Auckland drug ring bust - 24 people arrested, millions in assets seized

Miriam Burrell, NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Wed, 8 Dec 2021, 3:41pm

A further 14 baggage handlers, gang members and associates have been arrested as part of a major crackdown on an alleged drug smuggling ring operating out of Auckland Airport and Ports of Auckland.

A total of 24 people have been charged this year as a result of a joint operation - Operation Selena - between New Zealand Police and Customs which began in June.

It investigated the alleged importation of more than 250kg of methamphetamine at the border, including on flights incoming from Los Angeles and a container ship that arrived from Tonga.

It is alleged a number of Air New Zealand baggage handlers were involved, as well as members of the King Cobras gang, in importing the class A drug from Malaysia, the United States and Tonga between January and December.

"This type of offending is highly concerning not only because of the harm drugs are doing to the community but the ability to place unchecked items into aircraft ... threatens the integrity of air security travel," said Detective Inspector Paul Newman.

The 14 arrests today relate to drug smuggling syndicate between LAX and Auckland Airport.

"Police will allege that unchecked items were placed in the cargo holds of aircraft flying to Auckland before being removed from the aircraft where the alleged offenders would bypass security and take the drugs out of the airport.

"Six of those charged today are, or have been, baggage handlers working for Air New Zealand."

Police said the syndicate have smuggled drugs from Los Angeles since the start of this year, and conspired to import more than 100kg of methamphetamine which would cause $24m worth of social harm to the community.

In August, five people were arrested after a container sent from Tonga to the Ports of Auckland was found to contain 30kg of methamphetamine which was packed and disguised as taro and cassava.

Two of those charged were individuals who allegedly either worked at, or transported containers from, the Port of Auckland.

Millions of dollars in assets have been seized after 19 search warrants were carried out across Auckland today, including two Auckland properties, five vehicles and a Harley Davidson.

Banks accounts have been restrained and a thousands of dollars in cash recovered.

"Our message is simple to those considering or involved in this activity – you may not be on the radar at the moment, but we're coming to find you, and we will find you," said Customs Manager of Intelligence Bruce Berry.

Those arrested today are facing a raft of charges, including the supply and importation of methamphetamine, conspiring to import, and participating in an organised criminal group.

The group is scheduled to appear at Auckland District Court this afternoon.

Today's arrests come after the recent arrest of 14 men and women last month as part of the joint operation.

More than a dozen people have been arrested and charged as part of a joint investigation with Police and NZ Customs. Photo / NZ Police

It was revealed an organised criminal group was involved in smuggling, or conspiring to smuggle, close to 500kg of methamphetamine from Malaysia and the United States into New Zealand between January and October this year.

Police alleged the group was made up of six baggage handlers and eight associates, including two King Cobra members.

Alleged senior gangster named among group aged 18 to 43

Interim name suppression for one of the alleged senior patched King Cobra members lapsed early today and he has been identified as Nigel Luvale.

Prosecutors described him as "the leader" or the instigator on "the New Zealand side" of the illegal operation.

Another alleged King Cobra gangster has name suppression, as does another person involved.

Several other people - including six baggage handlers at the airport - were named last week: Sitaleki Maka, Tungane Manuel, Sanlolan Piukana, Kimela Piukana, Paul Toroma, Tokofa Toroma, Martin Pritchard, Rhys Tualevao and Mairiau Samson.

Fourteen people have been charged after a joint operation by NZ Police and NZ Customs into the smuggling of meth into New Zealand. Photo / NZ Police

They are aged between 18 and 43 years old and live in suburbs around Auckland including in New Lynn, Lynfield, Manurewa, Mt Wellington, Māngere and Whitford, south-east of the city.

All members of the alleged organised criminal group denied all charges and elected a jury trial.

Investigations started after suspicious activity by baggage handlers at Auckland Airport was detected, police said earlier.