CATCH ME(if you can)

Published date04 December 2021
It was December in 2017 and Ngakuru was staying nearby in a $1000-a-night holiday home he had rented with his wife, children, and their maid, where they celebrated Christmas a short walk from one of New Zealand’s most popular beaches.

This trip was a homecoming for the 37-year-old Rotorua native, who had risen through the ranks of one of Australia’s most notorious motorcycle gangs, the Comancheros, to allegedly become a major figure in the international drug trade.

Ngakuru was now based in Turkey, from where he operated beyond the reach of Australasian law enforcement as the Comancheros’ “international commander”.

From the moment he arrived in New Zealand on that trip, Ngakuru was under constant surveillance by detectives in the National Organised Crime Group, who suspected the Comancheros boss had muscled in on the lucrative drug trade in the country of his birth. Over a few weeks, they watched closely as Ngakuru splashed out $55,000 in cash on luxury accommodation, including at the Hilton Hotel on Auckland’s waterfront, and fancy restaurants.

It was also a working holiday. Police observed Ngakuru meeting with rival gang leaders and an associate who had been deported from Australia, according to police records obtained by the Weekend Herald. The detectives suspected Ngakuru was planning to expand his drug distribution network in New Zealand.

As tempting as it was to arrest Ngakuru, the detectives involved in Operation Van (as the investigation was codenamed) felt they needed more time to build a case. So they kept their distance, taking a calculated risk to let Ngakuru fly home to Istanbul while they gathered more evidence about his operation here.

Four years later, they’re trying to get him back.

Duax Hohepa Ngakuru is a central figure in a group of overlapping criminal investigations, both in New Zealand and overseas, which have exposed an alleged drug organisation that law enforcement authorities suspect sent hundreds of kilograms of methamphetamine, cocaine and MDMA into New Zealand over several years.

Those investigations included Operation Trojan Shield, the so-called “sting of the century” conceived by the FBI and Australian Federal Police, in which organised crime figures around the world were tricked into using an encrypted messaging platform called Anom. The alleged criminals believed they were communicating privately, but their conversations were being monitored by investigators.

In June, law enforcement agencies in 16 different countries arrested more than 800 people, in what has been described as one of the most significant blows against organised crime in history.

For several years, detectives infiltrated deeply into Ngakuru’s New Zealand business, conducting extensive surveillance on individuals in Auckland, the Bay of Plenty and Waikato who they suspected were involved in importing, distributing, and selling illicit drugs. As a result of those investigations, more than 1200 criminal charges have been laid against 40 individuals in this country.

The Weekend Herald has obtained hundreds of pages of legal documents relating to those criminal cases, which provide an unprecedented insight into the inner workings of an alleged international drug empire of staggering ambition and reach. Included in the documents were police allegations that:

● Ngakuru personally made more than $100 million from drug dealing, according to his alleged “right-hand man”.

● Ngakuru had ties to powerful international organised crime groups including Mexican cartels and syndicates in China and the Middle East.

● His network used a variety of daring techniques to smuggle vast quantities of cocaine and methamphetamine into New Zealand, with street values in the tens of millions of dollars.

● Ngakuru boasted of having multiple “doors” to the New Zealand market, which were facilitated by corrupt port, airport and postal workers.

● Ngakuru’s network was highly sophisticated and organised. They communicated using encrypted technologies that, until Operation Trojan Shield, law enforcement agencies could not crack. In these secret messages, Ngakuru was referred to by aliases including “Negotiator”, “Bullseye”, “Chuck Norris”, and “El Mito (The Myth)”.

The Weekend Herald can also reveal that Ngakuru has himself been charged, in the Hamilton District Court, with drug conspiracy, import and supply offences, money laundering, and participating in an organised criminal group. New Zealand Police are seeking to extradite him from Turkey so he can face trial here. NGAKURU WAS born in Rotorua in January 1979 and moved to Australia with his family in his early teens.

He became friends with Mahmoud “Mick” Hawi, who became national president of the Comancheros at only 21. Another mate was Hakan Ayik, known as “Big Hux”, who although not a member of the Comancheros rose to power in Sydney’s underworld with a combination of brains, brawn, and the ability to bring people together for a common purpose: making money.

Ayik was alleged to be able to source drugs overseas through Chinese crime syndicates and use the strength of the Comancheros to distribute the product through Australia. Ngakuru was the gang’s enforcer, the sergeant-at-arms, but took control of the Comancheros in 2009 when Hawi was jailed for the manslaughter of a rival gang member in a sickening brawl in front of hundreds of travellers in Sydney’s airport, according to Australian media reports.

Ayik and Ngakuru were alleged to be a new breed of organised criminals: living a lavish lifestyle and unafraid to flaunt it on social media. Ayik became known in the Australian media as the “Facebook gangster”.

Their unexplained wealth and growing influence did not go unnoticed by law enforcement. For two years, Australian police, through “Operation Hoffman”, targeted Ayik and the Comancheros to dismantle their syndicate.

But their tentacles had spread everywhere: A corrupt police worker caught leaking records. A safe house stacked with military-grade rifles, night-vision goggles, bulletproof vests, and explosives. Dodgy wharfies steering drug shipments through the ports. Millions of dollars shifted overseas by professional money launderers.

A tip from Operation Hoffman to...

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