An alleged lieutenant in an international drug syndicate, which police believe smuggled more than a tonne of drugs into New Zealand, has been arrested in Australia and is expected to be extradited back to stand trial.
The police arrested 10 people and seized $1 million cash in February last year following an investigation codenamed Operation Mystic.
The alleged drug syndicate regularly imported large amounts of methamphetamine, cocaine, MDMA and ephedrine over a three-year period, a total of more than 1000kg, police say, with the alleged”key player” pulling the strings from overseas at the time.
The 31-year-old Xavier Valent, also known as Harry Whitehead, was living in Italy but was successfully extradited back to New Zealand to face 94 charges of importing Class A and Class B drugs and possession of those drugs for supply.
As well as allegedly importing methamphetamine from countries like Mexico, Valent is charged with manufacturing the Class A drug locally in New Zealand by arranging for ingredients and materials to be supplied to a Northland meth cook.
He has pleaded not guilty to all charges and is due to stand trial in September.
Now it can be revealed that one of Valent’s alleged lieutenants has been tracked down in Australia.
The 31-year-old was the first person to be arrested by a newly formed unit of the Australian Federal Police known as the Fugitive Apprehension Strike Team, or FAST for short.
The existence of the unit was revealed today in an AFP press release, followed up by another statement referring to the arrest of the “wanted New Zealand national” in Victoria late last month.
“It is alleged the New Zealand man was facing multiple narcotic importation charges in New Zealand when he moved to a rural Victorian town in 2019,” the AFP said.
The man is in custody and will now go through the extradition process.
AFP Assistant Commissioner Nigel Ryan said the apprehension served as a warning to those most dangerous and wanted fugitives hiding in Australia.
“The arrest for the extradition process from Australia is a considerable result in securing an outcome for what New Zealand Police allege was a significant drug importation network operating within New Zealand,” Ryan said.
“There is no safe haven for foreign national criminals in Australia. The arrest by FAST continues to demonstrate the close relationships the AFP has with state and territory police and with New Zealand Police in combating transnational crime.”
A New Zealand police spokesperson confirmed the pending extradition related to Operation Mystic.
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The covert investigation by the National Organised Crime Group alleges the man arrested in Australia was a lieutenant to Xavier Valent, who is alleged to have sent daily instructions from his base in Italy to his associates on the ground in New Zealand.
These messages were sent through the Wickr app, which offers end-to-end encryption for users and therefore cannot be intercepted through the usual police surveillance methods.
The drugs were kept in stockpiles by trusted “storemen” who would repackage them, for “runners” to deliver to buyers. Cash from the drug sales would be sent overseas through money remittance dealers.
Of the nine others arrested in New Zealand in February 2020, four have admitted their roles in Valent’s alleged syndicate and been convicted of various drugs charges.
One of the “storemen”, Hugo Alarcon Ramos, from Chile, pleaded guilty to importing more than 20kg of methamphetamine, as well as 26kg of MDMA powder and 50,000 tablets between August 2017 and February 2020.
He also admitted being in possession of 200,000 MDMA tablets, along with a prohibited semi-automatic rifle, as well as selling methamphetamine, ephedrine and MDMA.
In September, Justice Grant Powell sentenced Alarcon Ramos to serve at least half of a 12-year prison sentence.
Another of Valent’s alleged “storemen”, Jose Mari Torres Macalalad, has also pleaded guilty to serious drugs and firearms charges. He was sentenced on Friday to 12 years in prison, although will be eligible for parole after 4 years, 9 months.
In a statement announcing the Operation Mystic arrests last year, Detective Inspector Paul Newman described the quantity of drugs allegedly imported by the syndicate as “significant”.
“New Zealanders are using about 13kg of methamphetamine a week according to recent wastewater analysis, so a tonne of methamphetamine or its precursor ephedrine equates to more than a year’s worth of national consumption,” he says.
“By arresting and stopping this syndicate’s key player, along with his alleged associates, it will go a long way to reducing the amount of this drug being imported into New Zealand, and preventing the harm it causes to our communities.”
More than $1 million in cash, several expensive vehicles and firearms – including a military style rifle – were also seized.
“Removing the drugs from circulation is only part of the solution. We will strip the assets of those who import and deal drugs. Our reach offshore through our law enforcement partners and our own New Zealand Police liaison network means we will find these criminals and they will be held to account.”
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