Police say Auckland Airport has been targeted by a syndicate smuggling drugs from the United States into New Zealand.
Fourteen people, including six baggage handlers working for Air New Zealand and three King Cobra gang members, have been charged today after a six-month joint operation with Customs.
Authorities confiscated 45kg of meth and three firearms in relation to the latest arrests.
Detective Inspector Paul Newman said they suspect unchecked items were placed onto aircraft flying from Los Angeles to Auckland.
Police suspect the unchecked items were removed from the cargo holds by offenders who bypassed security.
They believe the syndicate has been smuggling drugs from LA since the start of this year and have allegedly conspired to import more than 100kg of methamphetamine.
Today police carried out 19 search warrants, resulting in the 14 arrests and seizure of millions of dollars in assets, including two Auckland properties and bank accounts, as well as small quantities of methamphetamine.
The 14 people charged with importing, conspiring to import and possessing to supply methamphetamine are due to appear in the Auckland District Court.
How the operation unfolded
Detective Inspector Paul said an intelligence operation into “insider threats” at the airport began early last year, which resulted in four baggage handlers charged in relation to smuggling 20kg of meth into Auckland from Los Angeles Airport.
It became the genesis for Operation Selena in June this year, which tracked down smuggling from Tonga, Malaysia and the USA.
In August 2021, five people were arrested after a container from Tonga to the Ports of Auckland was found with 30kg of methamphetamine, which was packed and disguised as taro and cassava.
Two of those charged were King Cobra gang members and another two allegedly either worked at, or transported containers from, the Port of Auckland, police said.
Two firearms were also seized during search warrants along with $20,000 in cash.
Last month, police said 14 people, including six baggage handlers, were arrested in relation to a criminal syndicate headed by King Cobra members allegedly smuggling or conspiring to smuggle nearly 500kg of methamphetamine into Auckland Airport from Malaysia.
A smuggling attempt of 200kg of methamphetamine was intercepted at the Malaysian border in October 2021.
Police said through their investigation they discovered links between syndicate members, and some of the people who were charged today were already facing charges.
Tightening security to prevent ‘corrupt insiders’
Detective Inspector Paul Newman said they have been working with Air New Zealand over the course of the investigation.
“This type of offending is highly concerning not only because of the harm the drugs cause when they enter our communities, but because the ability to place unchecked items onto aircraft threatens the integrity and security of air travel.”
Newman said they were also working with “offshore partners” to help tighten security.
Air New Zealand chief operational integrity and safety officer David Morgan said the airline had zero tolerance for such offending.
“We will also continue to encourage and support all our employees to do the right thing and report any suspicious behaviour.”
Customs intelligence manager Bruce Berry said the investigation showed how offenders tried to manipulate the trade supply chain by recruiting insiders.
“We continue to work closely with industry, including across airports and ports who have been very cooperative with such investigations.”
US Homeland Security Investigations Attaché to Oceania Adam Parks said these arrests showed the “threat posed by corrupt insiders” within trade and travel systems.