A trio of men dressed in hi vis gear allegedly broke into the Port of Tauranga in the middle of the night and were found near the area where imported shipping containers are
The alleged security breach came just months after another break-in at the largest port in the country, leading to the discovery of $12 million of cocaine, as law enforcement warn that organised crime groups continue to probe for weaknesses at the border.
After the most recent alleged break-in, police arrested three men after they allegedly cut through a wire fence and entered the grounds of the port in the early hours of December 6.
They had allegedly driven down from Auckland the previous day and purchased around $500 of high-visibility clothing and work boots. Tools and duffel bags were also allegedly found in their car.
Police have charged all three men, aged 31, 27 and 25, with burglary. No drugs have been found in connection with the alleged burglary, although the investigation by the National Organised Crime Group is ongoing.
The 31-year-old has also been charged with failing to provide police with the passcode to his smartphone.
A police spokesperson was unable to provide any more details because key staff were on leave.
As the matter was now before the courts, a spokesperson for the Port of Tauranga declined to comment on the specifics of the case.
But she said the port was monitored with CCTV cameras “around the clock” and a “24/7″ security team which works closely with law enforcement.
“Anyone who does try to break in risks their lives, as there is heavy machinery operating at all hours,” the spokesperson said.
The alleged burglary came just three months after another suspicious incident at the port.
In September, security staff at the Port of Tauranga raised the alarm with police after finding signs of a break-in at the boundary.
Over the next two days, Customs officers then searched 36 shipping containers and discovered plastic-wrapped cocaine ‘bricks’, weighing 26kg and worth an estimated $12m, inside the refrigeration unit of one container. Three men were arrested by police.
Terry Brown, in charge of intelligence and investigations at Customs, said the border protection agency works closely with port companies, their security teams and the police to ensure anyone intentionally breaching security measures is identified and apprehended.
“We are alert to organised crime groups attempting to intercept drugs before Customs has the opportunity to complete its risk assessment and inspections.”
Brown said transnational organised criminal (TNOC) groups continue to probe for vulnerabilities in international supply chains, including their efforts to smuggle drugs – especially methamphetamine and cocaine – into New Zealand by air or sea.
“We know that TNOC groups are targeting individuals with key roles at our airports and seaports to circumvent border and port security processes. It is important that we maintain and improve Customs’ and our partners’ ability to face that increasing threat.”
In recent years, there have been a number of port and airport workers identified in covert operations targeting the drug trade.
In 2019, a supervisor at the Ports of Auckland was caught after a shipping container flagged for inspection disappeared from the wharves on the back of a truck in the middle of the night.
The container was linked to the Mongols motorcycle gang and $90,000 was found in a shoebox at the supervisor’s home.
In a separate investigation, Operation Tarpon, a stevedore at the Port of Tauranga was sent to prison this year as part of a plot to smuggle 200kg of cocaine belonging to a Mexican cartel.
With millions of dollars to be made from the methamphetamine trade in New Zealand, police and Customs have long warned of the risk of bribery and corruption.
However, the arrival of outlaw motorcycle gangs such as the Comancheros and Mongols after senior members were deported as “501s” from Australia has accelerated the need for greater vigilance.
Although a small fraction of the “501″ deportees, nicknamed after the section of the immigration law used to remove them on character grounds, law enforcement believe these gangs have led to an escalation in the criminal underworld.
Jared Savage is an award-winning journalist who covers crime and justice issues, with a particular interest in organised crime. He joined the Herald in 2006, and is the author of Gangland and Gangster’s Paradise.