Cocaine smuggling bust: Colombians claim innocence

Cash seized by police. Photo: Supplied
Cash seized by police. Photo: Supplied
A number of Colombian nationals charged over an alleged massive cocaine smuggling ring yesterday denied the allegations and will stand trial.

In one of New Zealand's biggest ever drug busts, eight people were arrested as part of a joint 10-month National Organised Crime Group (NOCG) and Customs sting, dubbed Operation Mist.

The alleged drug smugglers are accused of bringing 50kg of cocaine worth millions of dollars from Colombia into New Zealand.

They all appeared before Judge Quentin Hix at Christchurch District Court on Wednesday afternoon on various charges, ranging from importing cocaine, conspiring with others to import drugs, and money laundering.

Those who entered not guilty pleas yesterday will be back in court on February 24 for a Crown case review hearing.

No trial dates have yet been set.

Drugs had been smuggled in machinery parts. Photo: Supplied
Drugs had been smuggled in machinery parts. Photo: Supplied
Esteban Blanco Gaviria, a 34-year-old dairy farm worker from the Ashburton district, denies charges of conspiring with "persons unknown in Colombia" to import cocaine, seven charges of importing or attempting to import the drug and four charges of money laundering, amounting to $605,000 and alleged to have happened in Auckland, Christchurch and Rolleston stretching back four years.

Anderson Pelaez Garcia, a 28-year-old who had been working in the Ellesmere district south of Christchurch, pleaded not guilty to nine charges of importing cocaine in 2019 and 2020 and of being in an organised criminal group since around January 1, 2018.

Patrick Chand denied one charge of possession for supply cocaine.

Maria Emilia Otero, a 30-year-old from a property in Rakaia, denies participating in an organised criminal group to import cocaine, along with attempting to import cocaine into New Zealand between May and September this year.

Police say the group was a major supplier of cocaine into New Zealand. Photo: Supplied
Police say the group was a major supplier of cocaine into New Zealand. Photo: Supplied
A 24-year-old man, who was granted continued interim name suppression, has been charged with conspiring "with persons unknown in Colombia" to import cocaine, seven charges of importing or attempting to import the drug, and four counts of money laundering, totalling more than $600,000.

He also faces charges of being a member of an organised criminal group involved with importing the class A drug.

Ruth Yanid Ramirez Alfonso, 38, from a rural address in Mid Canterbury, pleaded not guilty to being involved in importing drugs going as far back as January 2018.

She has been charged with being in an organised criminal group involved in importing the class A drug methamphetamine, along with six charges of importing or attempting to import cocaine.

Felipe Montoya-Ospina, a 34-year-old from outside Christchurch, earlier pleaded not guilty to eight charges, including importing cocaine last year, and participating in an organised criminal group to import cocaine between 2018 and 2021.

Christchurch bar owner Rene Bell, 44, also faces an allegation that he jointly offended with two other men to launder $200,500 in cash.

He is yet to enter a plea and will be back in court on January 18.

A 29-year-old bar manager, who has continued interim name suppression, is also yet to enter a plea to a charge that between March 29 and September 2 this year he laundered $10,000.

National Organised Crime Group director Detective Superintendent Greg Williams, speaking at a press conference earlier, said about 50kg of cocaine had been seized either in New Zealand or at overseas ports.

"Based on wastewater data, we believe this group was supplying the majority of cocaine into New Zealand," Williams said.

"The investigation is unique as it has linked the importation of cocaine from South America and Spain into New Zealand, as well as money laundering offences in the United States of America."

Williams, who thanked the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) for providing a lot of resources, as well as the police in Colombia, said the group had been operating for more than two years.

Underground networks in Colombia inserted their own people into New Zealand who set up supply lines and links with local gangs and organised crime, police allege.

The drugs were sent from Colombia, with funds quickly being shovelled out of the country to America.

A common method of getting the drugs into New Zealand was hiding them inside other things and putting them in shipping containers.

A heat exchanger, for example, had around 1kg of cocaine hidden inside it and was discovered this month.

Large pieces of machinery, sweets or lollies, the gangs would conceal drugs in all sorts of things, Customs said.

Williams was reluctant to go into details of the networks involved in Colombia.

But "key people in Colombia" had been identified, he said.

- By Kurt Bayer

 

 

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