New Zealanders urged to help protect borders from drug smugglers

First the team of five million saved New Zealand from Covid-19.

Now the same five million — or at least those living near the coast — are being asked to save the country from the devastation inflicted by drug smugglers.

Border Protect is a new campaign by Customs encouraging Kiwis to report suspicious behaviour on the water and at the borders, and includes a 24-hour hotline and a website with tips of what to look out for.

It’s a nationwide campaign but has a Northland focus because the region’s location and long coastline make it the most likely target for drug smugglers.

Other threats include people smugglers, gun-runners and vessels trying to sneak in to avoid the Covid mandatory quarantine.

The campaign was launched by Customs Minister Meka Whaitiri at Ōpua Cruising Club.

Supervising Customs officer Nick Sparey said the aim was to encourage individuals, communities and businesses to report any suspicious activity on the water or at the border.

”It could be boaties or people out fishing seeing something they’ve never seen before — a prime example is what happened at Ahipara in 2016 when locals saw people trying to launch a boat, but they had no idea what they were doing.”

Those reports led to police busting New Zealand’s biggest haul of methamphetamine, with a street value of about $450 million, buried in dunes and stowed in a campervan.

Customs also wanted businesses selling boats or dive gear to report suspicious customers who didn’t seem to know what they were doing or paid large sums in cash.

The Ninety Mile Beach drug smugglers, for example, abandoned one boat then bought another with about $100,000 in cash.

Boaties should also look out for light signals at night or craft coming together in isolated places, such as heavily laden jetskis meeting up at sea.

”If you see something that causes you to make a mental note, report it,” Sparey said.

Most tip-offs turned out to have an innocent explanation, ”but it’s the one time where you end up with an Ahipara-type situation”.

”It’s not just boats, it could be aircraft landing in strange places at night or at disused air fields, and it’s not just drugs — it could also be people-smuggling. A suspicious vessel may not be carrying drugs but it may be carrying Covid or trying to get away from a place that has Covid.”

Sparey said Customs had long run a Coastwatch programme but extra government funding had allowed it to be beefed up with a new name, a 24-hour hotline and extra resources.

Tips to 0800 WE PROTECT could be made anonymously but Customs liked to be able to call people back and tell them what had been discovered.

Boaties spoken to so far were keen to get on board, Sparey said.

”New Zealanders are concerned for their communities. They see the harm drugs and guns can do and want to play their part.”

In 2018, two years after the Ahipara bust, the government allocated an extra $58m to Customs over four years to boost its fight against international drug smugglers.

At the Border Protect launch Customs Minister Meka Whaitiri said whānau across the country were being ripped apart by methamphetamine and other drugs.

While the Government took a health-based approach to drug problems, Customs also had a critical role in ”controlling the supply of this poison that criminals continue to send to our shores in order to feed their own greed for profits”.

As well as extra staff, Ōpua’s Customs unit had been equipped with a new patrol vessel, Āraia, with a cruising speed of 30 knots but small enough to be transported around Northland by road and access secluded inlets.

Customs has four maritime officers based at Ōpua, the entry point of three-quarters of all small craft arriving in New Zealand.

The agency conducts regular air patrols of the Northland coast and the Auckland-based 33m catamaran Hawk spends much of its time in Northland waters.

Customs also works with other government agencies such as the Defence Force. On March 19, for example, an Air Force Orion intercepted a suspicious yacht 150 nautical miles off North Cape, though in that case the vessel’s journey turned out to be legitimate.

Customs also operates a separate, 21-strong team at Ōpua called Maritime Border Order tasked with managing Covid-19 quarantine of boats at the border.

In 1985 locals’ suspicions about a yacht arriving in remote Parengarenga Harbour, near Cape Reinga, put police on the trail of a group of French secret service agents responsible for New Zealand’s first international terrorist attack, the bombing of the Rainbow Warrior.

Most got away but two were jailed for manslaughter.

■ You can report suspicious activity by calling 0800 WE PROTECT (0800 937 768) or going to customs.govt.nz/report. The website also gives details of what to look out for.

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