An international hunt has begun for a New Zealander wanted by South American police in connection with a major drug syndicate operating out of Buenos Aires.
Argentinian officials have told The Dominion Post they believe Peter Leaitua was the son-in-law of a Colombian woman who died in Auckland in September after a condom full of cocaine exploded in her stomach. She was a recruit of the drug syndicate, they said.
It is understood Leaitua, 40, arrived at Auckland Airport from Argentina on September 6 on the same flight as his mother-in-law, Sorlinda Vega, his wife and two children.
Interpol issued a wanted persons "red notice" for Leaitua on Monday. The alert said he was a New Zealander who spoke Spanish and was wanted on drug charges in Argentina. New Zealand has an extradition treaty with that country.
Last month Buenos Aires police announced the drug ring had been busted after an investigation that began in March. 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 October's bust, police seized 24 kilograms 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.
Their modus operandi was to export small amounts of high-quality cocaine in liquid form in shampoo bottles, injected into fabric or clothing or transported by "human mules".
An Argentinian official said Vega, 37, a Colombian, was believed to be Leaitua's mother-in-law. She died of a heart attack a day after arriving in Auckland after one of 26 packets of cocaine burst inside her.
After her death, Counties-Manukau police spoke to her adult relatives and had CT scans conducted to determine if they were also carrying drugs. Detective Inspector Scott Beard said at the time that police were investigating whether or not the family knew Vega was smuggling drugs.
A police spokeswoman said last night it was inappropriate to comment on details of any investigation before the coroner, and which had yet to be completed.
It is not known whether New Zealand police know Leaitua's whereabouts. A spokesman for police national headquarters confirmed it had received notification of the red notice and a general request from Buenos Aires to help find Leaitua.
"So far we have not received an investigation file and cannot comment on specifics about why the red notice has been issued. We will, of course, assist Argentinian authorities in anyway we legally can."
Leaitua could not be contacted.
In May, police assistant commissioner Malcolm Burgess said he was concerned at the increasing number of people acting as mules to traffic drugs into New Zealand and elsewhere.
"We are finding more and more people caught up in it all for a bit of extra cash or some other benefit. But the consequences, should they get caught, are life-ruining and inevitably end up with a long jail sentence or potentially harsher penalties if arrested in some overseas countries."
- The Dominion Post