Sun, Jun 30, 2019 - Page 7 News List

New drug highway causing havoc across the Pacific

A sharp rise in the number of boats smuggling narcotics from Latin America to Australia is devastating islands along the way

By Kate Lyons  /  The Guardian, NADI, Fiji

Illustration: June Hsu

A multi-billion dollar operation involves cocaine and methamphetamines being packed into the hulls of sailing boats in the US and Latin America and transported to Australia via south Pacific islands more often thought of as holiday destinations than narcotics hubs.

In the past five years, there has been an explosion in the number of boats, sometimes carrying more than a tonne of cocaine, making the journey across the Pacific Ocean to feed Australia’s growing and very lucrative drug habit.

Caught in the middle are countries such as Fiji, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, Tonga and New Caledonia, whose waters and beaches are being used as storage grounds for billions of dollars of illicit drugs.

Hundreds of kilograms of cocaine have washed up on remote Pacific beaches, ships laden with drugs have run aground on far-flung coral reefs and locals have discovered huge caches of drugs stored in underwater nets attached to GPS beacons.

“Draw a direct line between Bogota and Canberra and it goes straight through the islands,” University of Queensland criminal law professor Andreas Schloenhardt said.

The Pacific has been a transit point in the drug route for decades, but law enforcement and security analysts said the route’s use appears to have increased dramatically in the past five years.

Since 2014, the Australian Federal Police (AFP) have been involved in the seizure of about 7.5 tonnes of cocaine shipped in small vessels such as yachts through the region and intended for Australia.

Police in 2004 seized 120kg of cocaine on a beach in Vanuatu, a bust that the AFP heralded as the “biggest such haul in the Pacific nation’s history.” Nine years later, police made a bust involving more than six times that amount.

Since 2016, there have been six major seizures of drugs in French Polynesia. In 2017, a yacht was intercepted near New Caledonia with 1.464 tonnes of cocaine hidden in its hull and another boat was stopped just off the Australian east coast with more than 1.4 tonnes of cocaine on board. Each of these shipments was worth more than US$200 million.

“Seizures are becoming larger — larger quantities are being trafficked,” Schloenhardt said.

The region is caught in a perfect storm. Cocaine production is at its highest-ever rate. At the same time, the appetite for cocaine consumption in Australia and New Zealand, which have the highest rates of per capita cocaine use in the world, has exploded.

Australians and New Zealanders also pay more for the drug (about A$300 or US$210 per gram) than people anywhere else in the world, making it a lucrative market.

Drugs come into Australia through a range of means, including cargo ships, cruise ships and air freight. A Fijian air steward was arrested in December last year for trying to export cocaine, and in March, the AFP arrested two men, one an employee at the Sydney Airport, for being part of a meth-smuggling operation.

Sailing the drugs through the Pacific has become an increasingly profitable and popular way for dealers to get drugs to the destination, given the tight security measures involved in air travel, the tightening of customs controls at airports in many Pacific nations and the fact that there are very few direct flights between Latin America and Australia.

“The unfortunate thing is that the Pacific is at the heart of this,” Oceanic Customs Organisation operations manager Tevita Tupou said.

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