Guns, drugs seized in Cromwell drug ring bust

by Kim Bowden - Apr 19, 2023

Police have busted a crime syndicate they say is responsible for "pumping drugs" into Central Otago and the West Coast.

Three men are facing a combined 28 charges relating to methamphetamine, cannabis and firearms after police carried out search warrants at properties in Cromwell, Tarras and the Haast area yesterday (Tuesday, April 18).

It is believed the operation, accused of both producing commercial-scale quantities of cannabis in south Westland, and bringing methamphetamine into Cromwell, was orchestrated from Central Otago.

In a statement this morning, police say the drug bust is the result of more than a year of planning.

More than 70 police officers from Christchurch, Dunedin, and the West Coast were enlisted for the operation, including members of the Armed Offenders Squad, the Specialist Search Group, and dogs trained in detecting guns, cash and drugs.

Some of the 21 firearms and hundreds of rounds of assorted ammunition seized by police yesterday (image: NZ Police supplied).

District manager criminal investigations Detective Inspector Shona Low says the operation’s one of the most significant in the area in recent years. 

“We have targeted a commercial crime group that’s been causing harm by pumping drugs into Central Otago and the West Coast – solely to make money for the people behind it.

“These communities can be assured that due to this operation’s success, we have dealt a blow to organised criminal activity in the area.”

Of those charged:

  • One man faces eight charges related to the sale and supply of cannabis, and the supply of methamphetamine
  • A second man faces eight charges related to the unlawful possession of firearms, the supply of methamphetamine, the supply of cannabis, and failing to comply
  • A third man faces 12 charges related to the supply of methamphetamine, the sale and supply of cannabis, unlawful possession of firearms, and possession of cannabis

The three have appeared in the Queenstown District Court today.

Further charges and arrests are likely.

Work on the campaign, dubbed Operation Vintage, began in March 2022, following concerns around an influx of drugs and associated harm in Cromwell.

Enquiries led police to properties in the Cromwell, Tarras and Haast area, and to remote areas of Crown Lease land and Department of Conservation land in south Westland, where police yesterday located two large plots and a number of smaller ones. Cannabis plants in one plot were found dotted over an eight-kilometre area.

A significant quantity of cannabis, 21 firearms and hundreds of rounds of ammunition were recovered by the afternoon.

The cannabis recovery operation continues today.

“There has been a real effort to hide growing sites. They have been found deep in the wilderness, in areas where hunters would be unlikely to stumble across them. It takes considerable effort to get to the areas where these plants have been growing," Detective Inspector Low says.

Drones from the Specialist Search Group assisted police in locating areas of interest in the isolated bush area, while officers travelled by helicopter and foot – retracing the challenging routes taken by those accused of growing the plants.

“Small communities aren’t exempt from organised crime, and this shows the lengths we are willing to go to disrupt that. This commercial operation was designed to make money for those running it, with no regard for the harm it caused to people at the other end,” Detective Inspector Low says.

“This is not a police operation targeting small-time growers. It sought to disrupt a significant illicit campaign that contributed to harm in the small towns of Cromwell and Haast. This is not about personal use or low-level offending, this is about large-scale operations who profit from the considerable harm.

“Thousands of hours of work have gone into Operation Vintage and our enquiries are ongoing, but I’m confident these arrests will go a long way to making our communities safer. It also sends the message that organised crime is not welcome here.”

Main image (Police supplied): Police have located commercial cannabis plates on remote areas of Crown Lease and DOC land in south Westland.



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