New Zealand has consistently ranked at the top or in second spot on the Corruption Perception Index over the past decade, but Police’s National Organised Crime Group (NOCG) has uncovered evidence of corruption in government agencies and the private sector in recent years.
NOCG crime manager Detective Inspector Paul Newman says that while there’s little evidence of systemic corruption within New Zealand, it is increasingly at risk of being exploited by more sophisticated criminal groups.
“Organised crime at this level doesn’t exist without corruption,” he says.
Last year, police exposed baggage handlers at Auckland Airport who were being used by gangs to ensure that drugs brought in via aircraft avoided the normal security screening process. One of the baggage handlers had $250,000 stuffed into the roof cavity of his new home.
In 2019, a Ports of Auckland supervisor with Mongols connections helped shift a shipping container, believed to have drugs inside it, off site in the middle of the night before Customs could search it. About $100,000 was found in a shoe box at her home.
NOCG continues to investigate suspected historical corruption at Rimutaka Prison, and in 2018 an Auckland police officer was caught selling information from Police’s NIA (National Intelligence Application) system to criminal groups.
Paul says all government agencies are at risk of being compromised and need to establish sound security measures around the data they hold.
“It’s incumbent on us as Police and other government organisations to protect our information and give reassurance to the community that we are aware of the threat and doing something about it,” Paul says.
Police’s National Integrity Unit was a good example of the organisation’s response to insider threats and it worked with several agencies to share information and build resilience.
The arrival in New Zealand of Australia’s deported “501” gang members – the most notable of which are the Comancheros, Mongols and Rebels – has led to a crowded criminal landscape, he says, which has driven many of these groups to change the way they operate.
The number of 501s who are gang members, out of total of about 2600 deportees, is estimated at about 150, but they have made a discernible impact on the local drug market, particularly with the level of violence they are willing to use.
Their influence, experience and global connections have made New Zealand a target for larger quantities of drugs. “From listening to these groups, the object is to flood the New Zealand market,” Paul says.
There is already a glut of drugs out there, he says. “Whether it be cocaine or meth or MDMA, we’re seeing larger volumes coming through New Zealand, even though communities can’t consume it fast enough.”
Where the drugs are coming from has also changed. Suppliers in Central and South America and Europe are targeting New Zealand because of the premium that consumers here are willing to pay.
To combat this, Police increased its police liaison officer (PLO) presence in North America and Europe, as well as its traditional posts in Southeast Asia, Australia and the Pacific. The PLOs work closely with local law enforcement agencies to try to stop drugs from reaching New Zealand.
“They are well connected and give us reach and influence into other countries and regions.”
COVID CATCHES OUT DRUG IMPORTERS
The pandemic has caused widespread disruption to international supply lines for legitimate importers, and for organised crime it’s no different.
Paul says gangs were initially slow to adapt to the lack of freight coming in – their preferred method of distribution – but “like any legitimate business” might do, they changed their methods.
Smaller quantities, but on a large scale, started arriving through the mail system. It’s assumed that as shipping channels affected by Covid disruption begin to free up again, crime groups will return to shipping their product by freight.
One popular tactic to emerge has been the “rip on, rip off” method.
After a container is packed with legitimate goods, criminal groups will use their contacts within ports to plant drugs in the shipment before it is sent on its way to New Zealand and other parts of the world. On arrival, a contact will remove the drugs from the container and then place a fake seal on it to make it appear as though it hasn’t been tampered with.
New Zealand global transit companies have a high integrity rating around the world, but criminals here and overseas are seeking to exploit that with this method, which Paul says has also been used in ports in Ecuador and Panama.
Last year, NOCG worked alongside counterparts at the FBI, Europol, the US Drug Enforcement Agency and Australian Federal Police on Operation Trojan Shield, which resulted in the arrest of more than 800 people involved in a global organised crime syndicate.
In New Zealand, 36 people, including members of the Comancheros, Waikato Mongrel Mob and Head Hunters, were arrested and $3.7 million in assets were seized, along with more than eight kilograms of methamphetamine.
“These crime groups forced us to become participants and partners in global law enforcement around organised crime. We’re not sitting in a little part of the world that isn’t going to be impacted by organised crime. We know that they target us, and it’s caused us to wake up to that.”
NOCG has more than 100 staff at its base in Auckland, reflecting the population and market for illicit goods, as well as at locations in Christchurch and Tauranga, with its headquarters in Wellington. “It is no coincidence these teams are situated in districts that contain large ports where goods come in or are stored and exported out of New Zealand.”
Tauranga is about to get a second unit to cope with the demand created by a large gang scene in the area and the Port of Tauranga. A new team is also being established in Waikato.
The heartbeat of NOCG, Paul says, is the intel team – a group of more than 30 analysts who filter through terabytes of data per investigation. The analysts are often assigned to an investigation team to make sense of all the information coming through and help decision makers target the right criminal groups.
By June 2023, NOCG will have almost 200 staff, while most of the 700 additional organised crime workforce promised by the Government in 2018 will go towards making sure each district is fit for purpose in dealing with organised crime.
American agencies – the DEA and Homeland Security – have also set up bases in Wellington and work alongside Police.
Such relationships, as well as with the likes of Customs, are vital, Paul says, to building resilience to organised crime. “We work hand in glove with Customs and much of our success is through our shared goals and close working relationship.”
Large-scale drug importation distrupted by NOCG and Customs
613kg of meth intercepted at Auckland Airport
501kg of meth found on a boat abandoned on 90 Mile Beach
469kg of meth found in electrical motors sent from Thailand
450kg of meth imported via a mother vessel to small craff off the coast of Bay of Plenty
The harsh truth is that there will always be organised crime, Paul says. “We have to make sure that organisations and communities are aware that it exists and what it looks like so they can identify it and hopefully reject it.”
Which is why it is also crucial to keep any hint of corruption on the radar before it becomes embedded.
Tackling organised crime requires a whole-of-Police approach, encompassing demand for drugs and the lure of organised crime in vulnerable communities.
Police’s involvement in programmes such as Te Ara Oranga – the initiative in Northland that is using the health system as a way of dealing with meth addiction, rather than the justice system – is part of the solution, Paul says.
“We’ve got to look at why it's attractive for people to join gangs. We should be looking at ways and means of trying to exit people from gangs and drugs, and we also have to make sure that our communities are resilient to it as well.”
Paul says he and his team will continue to relentlessly apply pressure to those at the top end of organised crime, here and overseas.
“They’re never going to be able to relax, they’re always going to be looking over their shoulder.”
In March, it was announced that Operation Tauwhiro will be extended until June 30 this year. To date, more than 1500 firearms have been recovered and 1255 people arrested as part of the operation.
NOCG has been involved in Operation Tauwhiro since it was launched at the beginning of 2021. Its Firearms Investigation Team, which consists of one sergeant and seven investigators, primarily examines high-level firearms offending – the manufacture and importation of these weapons – to understand how they’re entering New Zealand communities.
Alongside the team is a suite of intelligence analysts who comb through large data sets of firearms sales. They are looking for recurring purchasers buying multiple firearms and ensuring they are still in their possession.
Evidence gathered over the past few years has revealed a robust illegal market in which criminals buy guns from legitimate firearms licence holders – known as straw purchasing.
“There are several licensed firearms holders worthy of further investigation,” Paul says.
A recent example of straw purchasing was a case in Taupō where a licensed holder bought multiple firearms to sell to criminals and even exchanged guns for methamphetamine that he then on-sold.
The offender had bought several Alfa Magnum revolver carbine rifles that he cut down at the stock and barrel to convert them into pistols. On some of the firearms, he made incision guides on the stock and the barrel so the new owners would know how to cut the rifles down themselves.