7 Jan 2023

Could a drug cartel form in New Zealand? There's already been one attempt

5:47 pm on 7 January 2023

By James Halpin of Stuff

190kg of cocaine found inside boiler

At least 190kg from Ecuador was seized in Operation Depot (file photo). Photo: Supplied / NZ police

Analysis - From Pablo Escobar in Colombia to "El Chapo" Guzman in Mexico, drug cartels might seem like a particularly Latin American and Hollywood phenomena in running organised crime.

They corrupt and assassinate politicians, launder money, manufacture and transport killer drugs like Fentanyl and methamphetamine and kidnap and ransom civilians.

But they're closer than you think - Latin American cartels are currently exporting methamphetamine and cocaine into New Zealand because of the high prices.

November's announcement of Operation Depot saw Kiwi police catch 190kg of cocaine concealed inside a commercial boiler from Ecuador.

A shadowy drug cartel called 'The Commission' was revealed in October to have formed in New South Wales, so could a cartel form here?

It turns out there has already been one attempt at it.

Police have revealed in documents released under the Official Information Act that during Operation Equinox, a nationwide operation targeting organised crime, they had found a failed attempt to form a domestic cartel in New Zealand.

It would have irrevocably changed New Zealand's drug market and organised crime.

Police would not provide any further detail on the aborted attempt, citing the need to keep information confidential that had been given to them by a foreign law enforcement agency and prejudicing further investigations.

'Cartel' is actually an economic term and is used to describe a group of businesses working together to rig a market, such as to inflate a price or fix a market share.

190kg of cocaine found inside boiler

The boiler, imported from Ecuador, that is alleged to have been used to smuggle cocaine worth $38m into New Zealand. Photo: Supplied / NZ police

The Daily Telegraph's crime editor Mark Morri broke the news about The Commission.

Morri published WhatsApp messages from The Commission warning cocaine dealers in Sydney not to lower prices, or face consequences.

"This is warning to everyone landing work and screwing prices in Aus. "Commission" [sic] will go after families, drivers, storages, TT, legit business," the messages said.

"Play ball and keep prices high and don't make mistake [sic] and ruin your lives."

Morri, who is the host of the popular 'Crim City' TikTok, said drug prices were the key concern for The Commission after they dropped at the beginning of the Covid pandemic.

Morri said The Commission was started by and closely linked with the Comancheros, a gang also present in New Zealand.

"It was basically greed, these guys were making a lot of money and they wanted to keep making money.

"It led to a number of kidnappings and people being assaulted while they stamped their authority, to make sure people didn't step out of line," he said.

Morri thought all the ingredients were present in Auckland for a cartel to form, especially with the number of 501 deportees who had knowledge and experience of drug trafficking from the Australian underworld.

He also thought the lack of cocaine in the drug market in New Zealand would make it more appealing for Australian gangs to enter into supplying the drug.

The Commission had largely lost its power now, Morri said, after a police crackdown on the major players, some who also fled overseas.

Massey University's Chris Wilkins said there was already evidence of cartel behaviour happening in New Zealand.

He said it was ad hoc behaviour and would be based around sharing contacts, intelligence on routes and investment into particular shipments and the related infrastructure, like auxiliary boats, instead of a grand formal cartel group like in the Netflix series Narcos.

This happened in Operation Equinox, he said, where police arrested people associated with different gangs that were working together in the same syndicate.

Wilkins said drug conflict in New Zealand happened over control of territory rather than over keeping prices high. Drugs remained incredibly profitable, even though the price of methamphetamine had reduced by about two thirds over the past decade.

"The massive seizures you see are just the tip of the iceberg," he said.

In New Zealand, many rural towns had a local gang who held a monopoly for selling drugs over the town who then were part of one of a handful of larger, national gangs.

Control over territory provided a market to sell to and also kept competing gangs out of the market, he said.

Enforcing a cartel would be hard because of the number of small sellers and because of an endless supply of meth in New Zealand.

But Wilkins speculated two scenarios that could see a greater formalisation in the market.

Firstly, legacy gangs like the Mongrel Mob and Black Power could work together to try and exclude the newer, more violent 501 gangs like the Comancheros from the drug market.

Secondly, following the recent Operation Depot cocaine bust, Wilkins thought there could be a group that formed to guarantee cocaine imports from the Mexican cartels.

It would need the money and power to be able to get the drug through the border and then onto the street.

"Maybe cocaine is the drug that will be subject to that formalisation," he said.

Operation Equinox saw 35 arrested on 900 charges across the North Island, including senior members of the Mongrel Mob, Head Hunters and Comancheros gangs.

This story was originally published by Stuff.

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