A series of small seizures in which Argentine cocaine smugglers sought to reach New Zealand provides evidence of the growing appeal of Pacific markets for Latin American crime groups, and offers clues about the future potential of these routes.
On July 19, authorities in Argentina seized half a kilogram of cocaine in a package at a Buenos Aires post office that was bound for New Zealand, La Nación reported.
Before that in June, authorities arrested a man at the Ministro Pistarini International Airport in Buenos Aires province as he tried to board a flight to the New Zealand city of Auckland. A body scan showed that he had swallowed 81 capsules of cocaine, amounting to about one kilogram of the drug.
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In recent months, authorities in New Zealand have also stepped up security controls at airports, customs officials told the NZ Herald. Some of these airports serve direct flights to South American destinations, including Buenos Aires.
On May 5, customs authorities at the Auckland airport arrested two New Zealand nationals carrying seven kilograms of cocaine and nearly 15 kilograms of methamphetamine in their luggage.
A few months earlier, a man from Argentina was arrested and later sentenced to three years in prison after he tried to smuggle nearly half a kilogram of cocaine into Auckland.
New Zealand has seen a rise in drug consumption in recent years. The use of methamphetamines tops the list nationally while cocaine is particularly prevalent in Auckland, according to police data.
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Though the quantities seized were small, the frequent discovery of cocaine hidden in packages and on smugglers headed to New Zealand shows that the consumer market there is ripe for exploitation.
Both New Zealand and its neighbor, Australia, have some of the world's highest street prices for drugs, particularly for cocaine and methamphetamines, according to data from the United Nation’s Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
Commercial flights offering direct routes between Buenos Aires and Auckland facilitate the route for small-time traffickers. For large traffickers, the region's high potential earnings, coupled with an increasing number of users, makes it worthwhile in spite of the difficulty of transporting illegal drugs halfway across the world.
In Australia, the powerful Sinaloa Cartel has been supplying drugs for years, according to Mike Vigil, a former Chief of International Operations at the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
The Mexico-based group ”started sending small amounts of drugs to test the waters, to test if their smuggling techniques would work and then went large. They established local connections with distribution networks,” Vigil told InSight Crime.
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“The Sinaloa Cartel are experts at logistics and are able to move very large quantities of drugs," he added.
The group is believed to use a maritime route that takes advantage of Australia's extremely extensive coast, which is particularly difficult for authorities to patrol.
Cargo ships are also a favored transport method. Seven million large shipping containers pass through the country’s docks every year, according to an investigation by Australia's 7 News. Between 2013 and 2014, however, it was estimated that less than 15,000 containers were inspected.
The potential earnings make the risk of a shipment being seized worth it for the criminal groups.
"A kilogram of cocaine can sell for $24,000 in the United States, depending on the area. The same kilogram in Australia can sell for as much as five times more," Vigil explained.