KATE LYONS | Guardian Australia
SYDNEY - It’s been dubbed the ‘crystal road’: cocaine and methamphetamines are packed into the hulls of sailing boats in the US and Latin America and transported, in increasing amounts and with increasing frequency, to Australia via Pacific countries.
As part of Guardian Australia’s international reporting team, I investigated what was causing this explosion in the use of this maritime drug highway and what impact the trade was having on the local communities the drugs passed through, for the Guardian's High Seas series.
What I found was that the trade is being driven by Australia and New Zealand's growing and very lucrative appetite for drugs - people in the two countries were consuming more cocaine per capita and paying more per gram for the drug than anywhere in the world.
The use of this drug route has led to some wild stories.
Yachts with as much as 1.4 tonnes of cocaine on board have been seized in waters off Australia, blocks of cocaine have washed up on remote islands, where police fear villagers will mistake it for baking powder and unknowingly ingest it.
Then there's the story of the remote community in Papua New Guinea that stumbled upon $50 million of cocaine buried in the sand, a discovery that led to their community being threatened by a drug gang, and a week-long police boat chase.
I also travelled to Fiji to find out what it meant for Pacific communities to be caught in the middle of this multi-billion dollar drug trade route.
I interviewed drug addicts, drug dealers and law enforcement officials, all of whom said that there had been a shift in the last five years from the region being a transit point for the trade to Australia and New Zealand, to now also being a target market for cocaine and methamphetamine use.
Local use of what police call “white drugs”, as well as drug-related violence and corruption was increasing.
“I’ve seen terrible, terrible violence,” one man told me. “In the last 12 to 24 months, I’d suggest there’d be up to six, seven, eight deaths at least through this stuff.”
Onboard Fiji’s only police patrol boat as it conducted a sweep of waters off the west coast of the country’s main island, Fiji’s commissioner Sitiveni Qiliho told me of the huge policing challenges for South Pacific countries, which between them have to monitor an area of ocean that makes up roughly one-third of the world’s surface.
Pacific nations are also not set up to deal with the devastating social impacts of the trade.
Experts are calling on Australia and New Zealand to do more to help in the fight, given it is the appetite for drugs in these countries that is causing these problems, with warnings that unless action is taken soon, the Pacific could become a semi-narco region run by drug cartels.