Auckland Airport baggage handler Kimela Piukana pleads guilty to Operation Selena meth import scheme

By Craig Kapitan,

An Auckland Airport baggage handler has admitted his participation in an organised crime syndicate that was initially suspected by police of attempting to smuggle nearly 500kg of methamphetamine into New Zealand via overseas commercial flights.

Māngere Bridge resident Kimela Kolo Piukana, 24, entered the guilty plea today from the dock in the High Court at Auckland, two and a half years after he was arrested at the conclusion of a lengthy undercover police and Customs investigation dubbed Operation Selena.

Piukana was alleged to be part of a group of airport workers who on several occasions in 2021 were tasked with secretly removing illicit drug shipments stowed aboard Malaysian Airlines flights from Kuala Lumpur and Air New Zealand flights from Los Angeles.

“The drugs were subsequently driven off airport grounds and on-supplied to other members of the syndicate,” court documents state.

The scheme diverted the drugs from being screened by Customs.

Piukana initially faced multiple drug importation-related charges upon his arrest in November 2021. He pleaded guilty today to a charge of participating in an organised criminal group that carries a punishment of up to 10 years’ imprisonment.

As part of the guilty plea, Piukana also conceded he “contributed to the activities of the syndicate by passing important messages between key members”.

Authorities outlined several examples in court documents, including a series of messages in January 2021, in which there was discussion of a “test bag” being used to try out the scheme.

“Tell him duffel bag with a photo of it and make sure the bag has a fake tag on it and to message once the plane takes off with it,” Piukana was instructed to tell the alleged syndicate leader.

Authorities intercepted a message months later in which Piukana told another alleged syndicate member that a shipment had been delayed and would be coming a different day.

The agreed summary of facts for Piukana’s guilty plea does not list specific amounts of methamphetamine that were smuggled into New Zealand, other than to state they were “commercial quantities”.

Police alleged at the time of Piukana’s arrest that the group had either successfully smuggled or tried to smuggle roughly 500kg of methamphetamine. While the cost of methamphetamine can fluctuate wildly, that amount has been described by police in prior drug import cases as having a value of between $50 million and $90 million in New Zealand — considered one of the most profitable meth markets in the world.

“This type of offending is highly concerning not only because of the harm drugs are doing to the community, but the ability to place unchecked items into aircraft … threatens the integrity and security of air travel,” Detective Inspector Paul Newman said at the time of the arrests, estimating that an influx of 500kg of the drug on to the underground market would have caused “around $550 million in community harm … particularly in vulnerable communities”.

Customs intelligence manager Bruce Berry commented at the time of the arrests that the scheme showed a disturbing trend: “Organised crime in New Zealand is becoming more sophisticated … in subverting systems at the border”.

During today’s brief High Court hearing, Justice Mathew Downs set a sentencing date for August. He allowed Piukana to remain on bail until then — a matter that was not opposed by Crown prosecutor Matthew Nathan. The judge also approved a request by defence lawyer Benjamin Mugisho to not immediately enter a conviction for Piukana, who intends to seek a discharge without conviction at sentencing.

The plea comes three months after Ralph Anthony Vuletic, a former Ferrari-driving Auckland property hotshot, was sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment for his part in the alleged airport imports and a separate but similarly sophisticated scheme at Ports of Auckland.

Others have pleaded not guilty and await trial.

Craig Kapitan is an Auckland-based journalist covering courts and justice. He joined the Herald in 2021 and has reported on courts since 2002 in three newsrooms in the US and New Zealand.

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