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Drug syndicates boost activity in the Pacific

The Pacific Islands are not only becoming a destination for drugs like methamphetamine and cocaine, they are places where criminals can take advantage of weak or out-of-date laws and police largely focused on local policing and public order

Pacific sunset

| Voice of America | Edited extracts

BANGKOK — The Pacific Islands are increasingly being used as a transit point for transnational crime, including drug trafficking and money laundering, experts say.

Criminal organisations from Asia and the Americas are exploiting limited law enforcement resources in the region.

Furthermore, drug problems are increasing on tourist paradise locations like Fiji and Palau.

Most of the drugs and chemical precursors are bound for Australia and New Zealand, where drug prices are high and methamphetamine and cocaine use has been steadily increasing.

However, experts say, this is only the beginning and things could get worse, as is happening in Thailand, where a meth pill now costs less than a dollar.

A concerted regional effort is required to stop this deterioration.

“The Pacific is caught in the nexus between the drug cartels of South America and Central America and the Asian and Southeast Asian cartels,” said José Sousa-Santos, a senior fellow at the Australian Pacific Security College at the Australian National University.

“They are not only looking to move drugs to very lucrative markets in Australia and New Zealand, but also in Asia and the Americas.”

Santos said many Pacific Island states lack the capacity to patrol and enforce their borders.

Consequently there has been an uptick in the movement of drugs through the region.

Sousa-Santos said Indigenous criminal networks have also been created that collaborate with transnational syndicates and facilitate their operations in the region.

The states mostly affected Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Tonga, the Marshall Islands and Northern Marianas.

“This is something we have not seen before and it is quite troubling,” he said.

Sunrise in Simberi  New Ireland
Sunrise in Simberi, New Ireland (Pinterest)

The US Treasury Department said in December 2020 that the 14K Triad, one of the world’s largest Chinese criminal organisations, has been active in the Pacific.

The 14K Triad engages in drug trafficking, running illegal casinos, human trafficking and bribery in Southeast Asia and is also has engaged in similar activities in Palau, the Treasury said.

“A concrete example of the connection of major Asian criminals to Pacific criminals is senior 14K Triad figure Wan Kuok-koi, who also goes by the name Broken Tooth,” said Jeremy Douglas, regional representative of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime for Southeast Asia and the Pacific.

“Kuok-koi has invested in Palau through the Palau China Hung-Mun Cultural Association, which he controls,” Douglas said.

With more criminal groups and drugs coming their way from Asia and the Americas, local police in the Pacific Islands are now busy with higher crime rates.

The number of drug-related offences in Fiji has increased from about 200 cases in 2013 to more than 1,500 in 2020, according to Fiji police.

“Fiji is a transit hub for hard drugs and these cases are identified through domestic law enforcement agencies,” Assistant Superintendent of Police Maria Serukalou was quoted as saying in The Fiji Sun.

Serukalou said there were 549 cases of money laundering recorded in 2018 while local statistics showed that around $US49 million (K170 million) is being laundered in Fiji each year.

The ANU’s Sousa-Santos said there has also been a rise in the local methamphetamine production in the Pacific.

“At the moment in St Giles Psychiatric Hospital in Fiji, 80% of mental health admissions are linked to methamphetamine,” he said.

Douglas said transnational crime in the Pacific Islands is difficult to quantify but the threat is “very real” and growing.

He said the region is not only becoming a destination for drugs like methamphetamine and cocaine, it is also a place where criminals can take advantage of internet and banking infrastructure and weak or out-of-date laws.

Douglas said Pacific Islands police largely remain focused on local policing and public order, but they have to be more aware of external threats as well.

“No region stays isolated from transnational crime threats for long,” he said, “especially given how connectivity and technology are changing the nature of crime.”

The region needs to improve its capacities and collaboration with agencies outside the Pacific.

“The UN needs to step in and expand what we do given we are tasked with helping states and regions, and connecting them, to address transnational crime.”

Sousa-Santos said there is a lot the Pacific can learn from Southeast Asia.

Having greater exchange programs with other law enforcement agencies will also allow the Pacific to have a greater understanding of the criminal syndicates’ tactics.

“In the Pacific, the problem is in the early stages and we can stop the syndicates from taking root,” he said.


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