Herald reporter Jared Savage, who has reported on every major organised crime investigation in New Zealand for the past decade, explains why the latest drug bust is different to all the rest.
Out of the 900 charging documents laid in the Auckland and Hamilton courts today, one name sticks out.
Duax Hohepa Ngakuru, a high-ranking member of the Comancheros motorcycle gang who fled Australia for the Middle East more than a decade ago.
For years, Australian law enforcement has believed “Dax” Ngakuru, with his friend Hakan Ayik, has been part of a global syndicate behind some of the world’s biggest drug deals.
Somehow Ngakuru has managed to avoid capture since leaving Australia in 2010, leading a life most would describe as luxurious. He was not charged as part of today’s drug raids but the net is tightening following this co-ordinated global sting on organised crime.
Law enforcement agencies across the world have held press conferences today about Operation Trojan Shield, led by the FBI which tricked suspected organised crime figures into using what they believed was an encrypted messaging service.
Encrypted communication devices or apps, where crooks can openly discuss their activities without fear of their messages being intercepted by police, have made it extremely difficult to investigate organised crime in recent years.
After shutting down an encrypted platform in 2018, the FBI went a step further in Operation Trojan Shield to actually create their own.
For 18 months, people across the world unwittingly used the ‘ANoM’ software app to message one another in what they thought was utmost secrecy.
Instead, they were incriminating themselves as FBI agents watched as every word was typed.
This unprecedented treasure trove of intelligence was shared with a dozen countries, including New Zealand, and dovetailed with an ongoing investigation into large-scale drug smuggling allegedly linked to the Comancheros motorcycle gang.
This morphed into two other parallel inquiries in which police targeted a group of Head Hunters in Auckland, as well as an alleged alliance between the Comancheros and the Waikato Mongrel Mob.
This is where Duax Ngakuru’s name cropped up in the 900 charges laid in court. He allegedly conspired with others to import large quantities of methamphetamine and MDMA into the country, with hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash shifted overseas in return.
Duax Ngakuru is still on the run, so it seems history is repeating itself.
But today’s drug bust in New Zealand, under the umbrella of Operation Spyglass, is markedly different to any other I’ve written about over the past decade or so.
First, the length and scope of the covert investigation is mind-boggling. The Herald understands detectives from the National Organised Crime Group have been working on one strand of the inquiry for more than four years, with literally millions of intercepted messages to sift through.
Spare a thought for the police officer carrying the file, then the lawyers for the Crown and the defendants who will have to go through it all with a fine-tooth comb. It’s a mammoth undertaking and it wouldn’t be surprising if three years pass before the evidence is finally placed before a jury.
Second, this investigation will deal a significant blow to the psyche of the criminal underworld.
Covert investigations are a game of cat-and-mouse.
In the early days, police had to plant listening devices inside the homes of targets and sit in vans down the road while recording on physical tapes. Mobile phones changed everything with police able to intercept phone calls and text messages, although crooks soon learned to talk in code and throw-away unregistered “burner” phones every few days.
This changed again with the emergence of smartphone apps with end-to-end encryption or dedicated encrypted devices like Cipher, with which crooks could communicate with one another.
Disciplined criminals also refuse to talk business inside buildings, or even near security cameras, which nullifies the effectiveness of listening devices planted in rooms or cars.
Instead, they meet in public places like parks and even cover their mouths while talking to stop surveillance teams reading their lips.
In the game of cat-and-mouse, the police are nearly always playing catch-up.
So for suspected criminals around the world to learn today that they’ve been played by the FBI for 18 months, that in fact law enforcement was in fact one step ahead, will induce a crippling paranoia and disrupt their ongoing business plans.
Third, and perhaps most significantly, Operation Trojan Shield shows that New Zealand has an active working relationship with other countries to combat organised crime.
By its very nature, organised crime crosses borders and involves multiple jurisdictions. For a long time, New Zealand police have had great success in investigating the Aotearoa arm of a much larger drug syndicates run from overseas
Intelligence would be shared, back and forth, with trusted countries.
But for the most part, each country would deal with their own problem in their own time.
In just the past few years, senior New Zealand police have worked hard to foster genuine working relationships with international law enforcement, especially with the AFP in Australia and the DEA in the United States.
New Zealand’s inclusion in the coordinated response across a dozen countries today was the dividend from that investment. Hopefully, working together will lead to finding Duax Ngakuru.
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