The seizure of a record haul of cocaine that was smuggled into Tauranga yesterday is a sign international drug cartels are taking a keen interest in growing New Zealand's small cocaine market, officials say.
Some 46kg of cocaine, with a street value of $20 million, was seized at a Tauranga address yesterday after a five-month investigation by police and Customs led them to the Port of Tauranga and the Maersk Antares, a cargo ship which had arrived from the Chilean city of San Vicente late on Tuesday night.
Under cover of darkness, four men allegedly approached in a boat and removed a large amount of cocaine from a cavity near the rudder known as a sea chest.
The men were being filmed on the Port of Tauranga's high-tech camera surveillance network. Around 5.45am, police and Customs officers swooped, executing search warrants in Tauranga, Mt Maunganui and at addresses in Auckland.
Four men - two Australians, a Croatian in his mid-40s and a Serbian national in his mid-30s - were caught "red-handed", Customs manager of intelligence investigations and enforcement Jamie Bamford said.
Another 5kg of cocaine and 1kg of methamphetamine was found at an Onehunga house along with a large amount of cash. Police believe three of the men were also linked to a previous seizure of 30kg of cocaine.
Police assistant commissioner of investigations Richard Chambers said the seizure was hugely significant.
Such a large amount of cocaine was likely bound for all corners of New Zealand and would have caused "a great deal of harm", he said. "We're very pleased to have protected our country and people."
A sophisticated money-laundering operation has also been uncovered, with money flowing out of New Zealand via criminal channels, Chambers said. He was confident there would be more arrests.
The shipping service used has been operating for a year and includes ports in Colombia, Peru and Chile.
There's no suggestion anyone on board the ship was aware of its illegal cargo; the Antares has since left for Hong Kong.
All four of the men arrested are temporary visitors to New Zealand and were living in Auckland, some at the Onehunga address which was raided.
They appeared yesterday afternoon at the Tauranga District Court, accused of importing cocaine and possessing cocaine for supply. None entered pleas and all were granted interim name suppression.
They are due to reappear in court today before the case is transferred to Auckland.
Police believe the arrests have dismantled the international syndicate, but they are looking into whether gangs were to be involved in distributing the drug.
Cocaine is rare here but commands a high price - police say around $450 per gram - which is why Bamford believes the cartels have turned their gaze on New Zealand and are risking bigger shipments.
Most seizures are small, coming in via mail or air freight from the Americas. In 2015 just 1.5kg of cocaine was seized entering New Zealand. But last year more than 35kg was seized and this year around 21kg had already been intercepted before the Tauranga raids.
"We have a small market in New Zealand and we think this attempt was an effort to try and expand that market," Bamford said.
"We pay one of the highest prices so we are an attractive market. It's all about greed and those syndicates and cartels making money off people's misery."
Analysis of Auckland's wastewater in 2014 found high levels of methamphetamine but only minuscule amounts of cocaine were detected and only on weekends.
Figures released to NZME in June under the Official Information Act showed while arrests for meth had soared over the past decade, arrests for cocaine were minimal.
In 2016 there were 23 people charged and nine convicted over cocaine offences, compared with 4100 convictions for methamphetamine.