Canterbury farm workers jailed over cocaine ring

By Anna Sargent of RNZ

Two people have been jailed for their part in a multimillion-dollar Colombian cocaine smuggling ring that used farm workers as cover to import the drug into New Zealand.

Anderson Pelaez-Garcia, 31, and Ruth Yanid Ramirez-Alfonso, 40, were sentenced in the High Court at Christchurch on Wednesday, after they admitted charges relating to class A drug importation and money laundering.

The pair were part of a much larger drug syndicate responsible for importing and distributing nearly 100kg of cocaine, with an estimated street value of $45 million.

A global investigation into the syndicate involved the New Zealand police's Organised Crime Group and the United States Drug Enforcement Administration, as well as Spanish and Colombian police.

The court heard Pelaez-Garcia had a leading role in the syndicate and was involved with the laundering of over $300,000.

According to the summary of facts, he arrived in New Zealand from Colombia in 2018, and undertook farming work in rural Canterbury.

Pelaez-Garcia's involvement in the syndicate included being paid to identify and provide appropriate addresses to receive packages containing cocaine.

He was arrested in November 2021, and in February this year pleaded guilty to attempting to import a class A controlled drug, importing a class A controlled drug, money laundering, and participating in an organised criminal group.

His lawyer, Serina Bailey, said he came to New Zealand as an honest worker, and was drawn into the drug operation because of the financial gain.

"He comes from a poor area and a relatively poor family. At the forefront of his mind at all times was to support his family," she said.

Pelaez-Garcia was jailed for 15 years and five months.

Justice Cameron Mander said Ramirez-Alfonso's involvement in the operation was limited.

"You are not by any means considered to be a senior member of the syndicate, you provided your address to receive consignments of cocaine in exchange of payment," he said.

Ramirez-Alfonso arrived in New Zealand 10 years ago on a student visa and was a dairy farm worker.

Justice Mander said he accepted she had suffered exploitation while working on various dairy farms around Selwyn, and this coincided to some degree with her offending.

He declined her application to be discharged without conviction.

Ramirez-Alfonso was jailed for three years and six months, after pleading guilty to importing a class A controlled drug.

In considering the pair's sentences, Justice Mander said it was important to recognise the harm caused by serious drug offending, particularly that of a class A drug.

"Your offending does not have a direct victim. The distribution of cocaine, like other hard drugs, has many victims within the community, who often experience the worst of outcomes. These can include adverse mental health, criminal offending to fund addiction, breakdown of personal and employment relationships, and social depravation," he said.

Last week, three other members of the drug syndicate were sentenced.