Argentinian police give evidence in drug trial

Two members of a Colombian drug syndicate working in Buenos Aires were photographed by Argentinian police meeting a New Zealander accused of importing cocaine, a jury has heard.

Peter Leaitua, 43, is on trial in the High Court in Auckland charged with importing cocaine with his 37-year-old mother-in-law, who carried 27 packets of the drug inside her from Argentina to New Zealand in September 2011.

She died the day after she arrived in New Zealand, 45 minutes after Leaitua dropped her at Auckland Hospital. Three of the packages burst in her stomach.

Giving evidence via video link, three members of the Argentinian police told the jury about photographic and phone surveillance of a drug syndicate in 2011 that led to the seizure of 24 kilograms of high-purity cocaine and the arrest of known drug smugglers.

During this surveillance, three men under investigation by police for international drug smuggling, known as Mono, Cipaya and Jara, were photographed meeting two unidentified men in a Buenos Aires restaurant on August 30, 2011.

Earlier that day, police recorded a phone conversation between Jara and a man with a foreign accent arranging the meeting.

The Crown alleges that the men were meeting Leaitua for the purpose of arranging the cocaine to be smuggled into New Zealand a week later.

The police witnesses also identified one of the men under investigation at the airport on September 5, 2011, the day that Leaitua, his family and his mother-in-law flew to New Zealand.

Later, phone surveillance recorded a conversation between Mono and Cipayo about the death of a woman in New Zealand.

"We heard about the death of a Colombian woman ... we could get from this conversation between Mono and Cipayo that someone had died," said Hernan Araujo, a sergeant with the Argentinian police.

The Crown's case is that although the accused did not carry the cocaine, he arranged the drugs through meeting his Colombian contacts in Buenos Aires, organised Sorlinda Aristizabal-Vega's visa and travelled to New Zealand with her to oversee the cocaine's arrival.

"His assistance started when he applied for Ms Vega's visa to travel to New Zealand," Crown prosecutor Kingi Snelgar said in his opening address to the jury yesterday.

"It continued when he met with two members of a cocaine syndicate in Buenos Aires and it continued when he travelled with Ms Vega to New Zealand to oversee the smooth running of this importation and to guard his products."

The defence argues that Aristizabal-Vega acted alone.

She was from an area of the country known for producing cocaine, had travelled internationally alone in the past and was capable of acting alone, the defence said.

Leaitua and his family were relocating to New Zealand, not importing drugs, it said.

"He was coming back with his wife and their two young children to live. That was their reason for travel," defence counsel Christopher Wilkinson-Smith said in his opening address.

He said Leaitua's assistance to Aristizabal-Vega's travel was analogous to that of the taxi driver who took her to the airport or the pilot of the plane who flew them to New Zealand.

"Only Ms Vega has made the decision to swallow cocaine," he said.

"Is Mr Leaitua criminally liable for actions by being a party to what she has done?

"Was he intentionally a party to what she has done?

"Did Mr Leaitua willfully and intentionally help her smuggle drugs?"

After Aristizabal-Vega's death, Leaitua was the subject of an international police hunt. 

Interpol issued a wanted-persons "red notice" for Leaitua in November 2011.

In October 2011, Buenos Aires police busted an international drug ring after an investigation that began in March 2011.

It was named Operacion Canguro - Kangaroo in Spanish - to describe the syndicate's practice of moving drugs through New Zealand and Australia on their way to Europe.

In the bust, police seized 24kg of high-purity cocaine, 3kg of cocaine hydrochloride in a solid state and 7.5kg of cocaine in liquid form.

The total would have a street value in New Zealand of more than $12 million.

Argentinian police said the people involved in the ring came from Colombia, Peru, Argentina and New Zealand.

The trial will be heard by a jury of nine women and three men. It is expected to run for three weeks.