8 Jun 2021

Drug bust: Head knocked off importing beast - Gilbert

From Checkpoint, 6:08 pm on 8 June 2021

A gang expert says the arrest of senior gang members is significant and will reduce the supply of methamphetamine in New Zealand.

Coordinating with the FBI, Europol, and Australian police, New Zealand officers raided 37 properties yesterday and arrested 35 people on more than 900 charges.

The charges include supplying methamphetamine and money laundering.

Among those arrested were senior members of the Comancheros, the Mongrel Mob and the Head Hunters.

University of Canterbury criminal justice director Jarrod Gilbert said the arrests pulled roots out of the flourishing meth trade in New Zealand. 

He told Checkpoint police would usually wait until a large importation of drugs had come in and then seize it, but on this occasion police action was pre-emptive.

"The timing of this appears to have been set internationally, so they had to move when they moved," he said.

"It's a significant operation for a couple of reasons. One, it shows the operation between New Zealand and regional agencies dealing with transnational crime, but also international agencies. 

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Photo: RNZ / Patrice Allen

"The second thing is it's knocked down a fairly significant crime syndicate. 

"The catch that they got in relation to drugs and firearms, for example, was reasonably modest. The real importance is that it's knocked the head off a beast that would have been importing really significant amounts of drugs in the future and stop them getting an asset base."

He said the arrests showed the Australian 501 deportation policy had impacted on the crime scene here, with the arrest of Comancheros figures reflecting that.

"You can't ignore the fact that once again the Comancheros are involved. We know that they are a 501-created gang in New Zealand and I think in the past we've potentially been a bit guilty in saying 'well, 501 were to blame for all of the problems in for example, the gang communities' that we're seeing in recent times. 

"I've always thought that was a bit too easy an explanation. But without question, and once again we've seen that even in small numbers they can have a significant impact and the Comancheros seem to be proving that."

He said authorities' deployment of intelligence assets and modern technology had targeted criminals' need for communication to conduct business.

"Organised criminals need communication devices and they look for encrypted ways to do that, so they think they can do it safely. In this instance they were duped into thinking it was safe, when in reality it wasn't," he said.

Gilbert said the evidential basis of the legal case would be incredibly strong because of the method authorities had used. Other gangs would now be looking at the devices and means of communication and wondering if they wouldfall prey to the same fate in light of the sting, he said.

"There'll be a lot of people looking over their shoulders now."

Information sharing between jurisdictions around the world and deployment of technology to get ahead of criminal networks communicating their business was crucial to police successes, Gilbert said.

There remains a strong market for meth in New Zealand, with the price of the drug relatively high here.

Local organised crime groups had found it harder to manufacture the drug after authorities banned precursor ingredients, so had found it easier to import, Gilbert said.

The problem extended beyond mere gang identities in New Zealand, but there was a significant overlap between gangs and organised crime groups, he added.