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Tobacco bust prompts crackdown

Thursday November 14, 2019 Written by Published in Crime
Customs intercepted tobacco linked to the criminal syndicate at Auckland Airport. 19111318/ Supplied Customs intercepted tobacco linked to the criminal syndicate at Auckland Airport. 19111318/ Supplied

A tobacco smuggling bust may impact on future travellers’ duty-free shopping. 

A man has been arrested for illegally smuggling tobacco from the Cook Islands, after a six-month inquiry by authorities here.

Cook Islands Customs Service is now looking to clamp down on sales of tobacco and other excise items at Rarotonga International Airport, to stop further smuggling.

A 34-year-old New Zealand male was arrested at Auckland Airport this week when he got off a flight from Rarotonga. He has family links to Cook Islands.

His mother, aged 52, was arrested the following day after police and Customs investigators searched residences in Auckland.

Several stolen vehicles were recovered during the search, and small amounts of cannabis, MDMA, and cocaine were seized, New Zealand Customs said.  

The mother and the son have been charged with defrauding Customs revenue, and offences in relation to declarations and documents that are known to be faulty.

They are scheduled to reappear in the Manukau District Court on November 20 to enter pleas.

Xavier Mitchell, the Comptroller of the Cook Islands Customs Service, said the man was a person of interest to them. However Mitchell would not say under what suspicion the Cook Islands Customs were keeping a close eye on him.

The arrests was a result of a joint effort by the two countries’ customs services and the Cook Islands Financial Intelligence Unit.

The collaboration led to busting of a criminal syndicate involved in smuggling large quantities of tobacco and cigarettes from the Cook Islands to New Zealand, and suspected money laundering associated with the smuggling.

Investigations identified a family-based criminal enterprise was operating out of Auckland, and manipulating travellers to illegally bring tobacco into New Zealand.

These travellers subsequently faced a range of penalties, including the tobacco being seized and instant fines.

New Zealand Customs said the offending has spanned at least 18 months, and involved 80kg of intercepted tobacco and $113,422 in evaded duties and Goods and Services Tax.

Mitchell said they were able to share information with New Zealand Customs Service because the man arrested was a person of interest to them.

And they would continue to work closely with their New Zealand counterparts and other agencies here and abroad to combat both national and transnational crime.

Mitchell also said they would be putting measures in place, especially on the sale of cigarettes and other items at the Rarotonga International Airport to avoid similar crime in the future.

“I guess anyone travelling overseas can buy as many cigarettes or such items as they can,” he said. “They just have to declare those items when they arrive in New Zealand. Activities like this are always on our radar and we continue to monitor them.

“This is a great result which highlights the benefits of working collaboratively and sharing intelligence.”

Head of Cook Islands Financial Intelligence Unit Phil Hunkin said they started working on the investigation about six months ago. They were looking into the financial element of the alleged offending, he said.

New Zealand Customs investigations manager Bruce Berry said the investigation and arrests should serve as a warning to both criminal syndicates and travellers that Customs actively targets tobacco smugglers.

“Criminals or opportunists may assume Customs isn’t concerned about travellers who try to smuggle undeclared tobacco, but that’s not true – we have a team that specifically targets the organisers of cross-border revenue fraud. We urge travellers not to bring in undeclared tobacco for others,” Berry said in a statement.

“It’s important to acknowledge the incredible work of the Cook Islands Customs Service and the Cook Islands Financial Intelligence Unit, who have been closely involved from the beginning, as well as the assistance of NZ Police that also contributed to the success of this operation.”