A South American drug syndicate appears to be targeting New Zealand, as the amount of seized cocaine this year has increased more than 10-fold on two years ago, says the Customs Department.
Customs has intercepted more than 10kg of cocaine this year, compared to just under 3kg in 2009 and 733 grams in 2008.
“The high purity of the cocaine we’ve seen in recent months means that it is likely to be ‘cut’ for street sales and end up as a much greater quantity than was actually smuggled in,” said Customs group manager of investigations, Bill Perry.
Cocaine was selling for about $400 a gram, he said.
The dramatic increase in cocaine smuggling, much of it swallowed by smugglers, looked like an attempt by a group in South America to establish a syndicate supplying users in New Zealand, he said.
A Uruguayan woman was intercepted on Friday at Auckland Airport with about 800 grams of cocaine concealed in 97 pellets inside her body, he said.
Earlier, two Argentineans were detained coming through Auckland airport – one had swallowed nearly 700 grams of cocaine in 139 pellets.
Customs Minister Maurice Williamson said he was “deeply concerned” by the new trend but Customs was well equipped to fight it.
Customs believed some individuals could be the vanguard of an organisation looking to establish a cocaine market in New Zealand, he said.
Customs comptroller Martyn Dunne said officers were on high alert: “We’re ready for these people and we’re getting them,” he said.
Mr Dunne said there was a big upsurge in smuggling by swallowing and not just for cocaine.
In the last three months Customs had caught six “swallowers” carrying drugs internally, including cocaine, opium and methamphetamine, or P.
Earlier this year, three men swallowed almost 2.5kg of P, between them, in an attempt to smuggle it through Auckland Airport but were arrested after Customs officers searched them.
One of the three was carrying 1.4kg inside his body – the biggest internal concealment Customs had seen, he said.
Mr Dunne said swallowing was an “appalling and particularly desperate and dangerous mode of smuggling”, which demonstrated how “inhuman” the trade was.