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New Zealand seizes 3.5 tons of cocaine in nation’s largest bust

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New Zealand authorities have seized more than three tons of cocaine that was wrapped into 81 bales and cached at a floating transit point in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, in the single largest drug bust in the nation’s history.

The cache, estimated to be worth $315 million, is large enough to supply the Australian market for a year, and New Zealand’s for three decades, New Zealand Police Commissioner Andrew Coster told reporters Wednesday. The cocaine — which weighed 3.2 metric tons, or 3.5 tons in the United States — came from South America and was destined for Australia, police said.

The cocaine bundle was “set up into nets” with flotation devices. The design is not uncommon, Greg Williams, a senior detective with the New Zealand police, told reporters. “There’s multiple ways in which organized crime will want to get its product in our country,” Williams said. This includes flying drugs on planes, sending them in the mail, shipping them by sea, or hand-carrying them in suitcases. “And this is just one of those ways.”

The packages of cocaine were pasted with the Batman logo and images of a black four-leaf clover. The symbols represent logos of the drug producers, Williams said.

“That’s their trademark logos,” he said. “In the underworld, it’s like ‘here’s my mark, you can trust me.’”

New Zealand authorities declined to reveal operational details of the seizure, including how they had found the drugs. But they said New Zealand’s partners from the Five Eyes Law Enforcement Group — which also includes agencies from Australia, Britain, Canada and the United States — provided assistance. No arrests have been made, police said.

New Zealand’s navy and customs service worked with the country’s police to seize the drugs and ship them on a six-day journey back to New Zealand, where they will be incinerated. The discovery was made as part of Operation Hydros, which began in December and aims to “monitor the movements of suspicious vessels,” New Zealand police said in a news release.

How do illegal drugs get into remote Australia? Check with the flight attendants.

The country’s previous largest discovery of illicit drugs came in March last year when authorities seized a cocaine shipment of 700 kilograms, or 1,540 pounds, that was worth an estimated $177 million. Two weeks earlier, officials had found 613 kilograms, or about 1,350 pounds, of methamphetamine, worth an estimated $155 million.

Alcohol and tobacco are the drugs that cause the most harm to the wider public in New Zealand, according to the NZ Drug Foundation, a charitable group in Wellington. Among illicit drugs, cannabis and meth are the most frequently seized by police, while the amount of MDMA, or ecstasy, confiscated by police has more than doubled since 2017, according to the report. Cocaine, on the other hand, is consumed in “low quantities” in New Zealand compared with other countries, the report says.

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