Side event: Maritime Drug Trafficking in the South Pacific

Shanaka moderator (UNODC): Global Maritime Crime team has been working closely with Pacific Crime Coordination Center.  Hope to deliver equipment to Fiji, Hiribash, Tonga, and Tuvalu.  We’ve also provided algorithm based machine learning software to detect vessels at sea.  Recognize that use of advance technology is a key tool is combatting maritime crime in Pacific.

Sanaka Samarasinha: Opening remarks.  Greetings from Fiji. Thank you for inviting to address this meeting.  This office covers 10 countries in North and South Pacific.  Over the past 5 years there is an emerging volume of drugs in Pacific highway.  According to Pacific National Crime Network, cocaine and methamphetamine continues to be the main drugs smuggled. Along the way, Pacific islands used as transit points. Pacific islands become integral for factors that make them appealing- their location, surrounding waters, isolation. The negative impact of Covid-19 has further exacerbated this by creating multilayered landscape opportunities.  Many of these countries have been successful in ensuring that negative impacts of Covid-19 has been mitigated. Many countries have not had infections. The increase in criminal activities, specifically drug traffic have reflected that region has become valuable as transit routes to more lucrative markets. The Pacific island countries make up biological diverse region. Discussions such as this side event offers platform to provide transparency.

Dr. Asyura Salleh, UNODC Global Maritime Crime Program:  Carving out route of Pacific cocaine highways and push and pull factors through 3 distinct modus operandi. Past few years seeing more cartels transiting cocaine from South America to Australia.  Most affected South affected countries include Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Tonga, etc. Become multimillion venture include close engagement with local populations.  Witness heavier volumes in maritime routes since Covid-19.  Need to look for alternatives on sea.  Reduce street availability to drugs and push up drug prices that make syndicates look for alternatives to exploit markets.  650kg of cocaine washed up on Marshall Islands. Several reasons behind rise in illicit cocaine in Pacific.  Push factors- drivers encourage syndicate members to push cocaine out of source countries.  Since 2014 onwards there has been rise in coca cultivated areas.  In 2018 cocaine hydrochloride reach its highest level.  With more cocaine available, there is a need to diversify.  Price of cocaine dropped in 2012 from 261 USD per gram to 162 USD.  Changes in local conflict ie. FAARC since engaging in peace negotiations with the government.  Mexican cartels having a presence in drug trade.  Become collaboration between syndicates in reaching groups in cocaine operations.  Pull factors- high price of cocaine in the region, especially in Australia. Appetite for cocaine consumption is rising especially in NSW.   In 2015, Australia accounts for 99% of cocaine seized in Indian ocean.  Australia coastline attractive for traffickers for undermonitored areas for point of entry.  International networks cooperate with local criminal groups.  Last factor, Australia is also close proximity for Pacific islands and offer ideal covers.  Porous coastline and empty shores appealing for transit hubs.  Blind spots easily exploited by drug traffickers.  3 main strategies- 1) direct shipment- direct route without stopover, entail large vessel make journey across Pacific ocean and get transshipment taking place in smaller vessel. 2) Pleasure craft transit method- more impact on Pacific island states, used during yacht season May-October.  Many careers hired, crew member of different nationalities.  Pattern of movement similar to other yachts that are out at sea, like typical tourist activities. Harder to detect this method but we can always look out that these vessels are more heavily modified in order to conceal consignment.  Impact on Pacific island states, when vessels transit, there is engagement with local economy or refuel despite drugs never offloaded on the islands. 3) Relay transfer method- poses greatest danger because it directly engages with local populations.  Higher number of people.  Direct linkage created, drugs and money can easily enter into these island states creating socioeconomic problems and risk of drug dependence.  Can deploy local representatives into these islands.  Case studies include Papua New Guinea case study, August 2020, 500kg cocaine found. Another case- ghost ships filled with cocaine washing up in Marshall islands, 649kg cocaine, December 2020. Citizens hesitant in handing over cocaine to authorities. Queensland, 130kg cannabis, 1.5kg cocaine, March 2021, connected with criminal motorcycle gangs in Australia. Modus operandi used in different contexts and used in different ways. Maritime trafficking have impact on island welfare and their communities. Cocaine trafficking in Pacific ocean needs to be recognized.  Hope can identify regional gaps and share lessons learned.

Mr. Akatauira Matapo, Commissioner Police from Cook Islands: Cook islands is bound to unique and vulnerabilities. As transit point, there are illegal activities. Geographic proximity, significant point of transit to international trading. Convenient cover for illegal activities.  Cook islands has increased efforts to build up surveillance and security, efforts to counter drug trafficking and money laundering. The use of advanced technology also demands sophisticated measures. Partnership assistance may be required. Enforcement should be backed up by laws, policies, and measures of deterrence.  Vast open ocean pose challenges, especially on populations who depend on maritime routes. Recently, Cook islands has had the opportunity to be involved in the Global Maritime Crime Program and look forward to working closely with all partners as we protect our nations and our people.

Senior Superintendent Serupepeli Neiko, Director Narcotics Bureau, Fiji Police: We have seen in last few years, alleged number of increased in drugs in Australian markets that have gone through Fiji.  One of our biggest challenges is that we are unable to police maritime jurisdictions. We have been grateful for assistance that have been provided to us. Hope we can better understand environment and how to deal with drug trafficking.

Superintendent Halatoa Taufa, National Crime Commander, Tonga Police: Would like to focus on efforts of Tonga police towards maritime trafficking in Tonga. First case in 2012, there was a vessel that left Ecuador aimed for Australia.  Vessel found washed up with cocaine. In 2018, 58 bricks of cocaine found in skipjack in the south of the island. Yacht that has been transit in Tonga in September 2019. On board were Colombian male and Australian male. However no drugs were found. This route is common for many yachts in transit. Travel routes include French Polynesian-Cook Islands-Niue-Tonga.  There is maritime coordination center established in Tonga.  MOU signed by head of Navy Police and CEO of fisheries for sharing information and support its ministry on operations and intelligence. Maritime Coordination Center MCC has been stationed at navy headquarters and enhanced operation, data analysis, and sharing of information, communication and coordination to ensure sovereignty of maritime security has been maintained.  MCC used various 4 systems to support operations.

Superintendent Amuia Aligi, Tuvalu Police Commissioner: Tuvalu does not have high tourism country like other presenters have like Cook Islands, Fiji have.  The routes from US to Australia, Tuvalu not really involved in those trafficking routes.  However, we still recognize drug trafficking as a transnational crime and threat to our country.  In the past we have not experience washed up drugs like other countries like Tonga and Fiji police have.  However, we have established some legislature to secure us from having this threat in the future. We have been working together with our maritime police to prevent drug trafficking.

John Mote, Kiribati Police Commissioner: Drug trafficking cases are very rare.  Despite the drug trafficking being low, we have significant concerns in terms of knowledge in this area.  Because of this, in addition to very limited resources and technology, we rely a lot on information sharing by partners.  As drug trafficking crimes become more organized and complex, the only option is to continue to work with national and international partners. Due to lack of equipment for identification of drugs and lack of skills, inspection would be carried out with challenges. If any suspicious drugs is found, the officer would have no clue.  Product would have to be sent to Australia for confirmation.  We need assistance in identification for drug types, samples, and evidence collection. At the regional and international level, patrol boats have been engaged in many joint operations. These programs have been successful. As maritime drug trafficking becomes more organized and sophisticated in the region, the investigations should be more advanced and techniques help officers. As highlighted, we have combatted this through deterrence.

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