Feature

Pacific In Danger Of Becoming Semi-Narco Region, Says Expert

The Pacific risks becoming a ‘semi-narco’ region unless regional governments move decisively to address the growing drug problem and adopt a co-operative strategy, says a transnational crime specialist. Jose Sousa-Santos,
20 Sep 2019 13:06
Pacific In Danger Of Becoming Semi-Narco Region, Says Expert
Transnational crime specialist Jose Sousa-Santos, who is also the founder of the Asia-Pacific research security group, Strategika.

The Pacific risks becoming a ‘semi-narco’ region unless regional governments move decisively to address the growing drug problem and adopt a co-operative strategy, says a transnational crime specialist.

Jose Sousa-Santos, a founder of the Asia-Pacific research security group, Strategika, believes the increasing flow of drugs through the Pacific indicated that transnational criminal syndicates were getting bolder.

A semi-narco Pacific would see these well-organised and well-resourced criminal syndicates become entrenched in the region and command significant influence over law enforcement agencies, business entities and governments.

“In the past 10 years, we’ve seen that the Pacific has become a trafficking route that has been used by transnational crime syndicates to access the Australian and New Zealand markets,” Mr Sousa-Santos said.

“Transnational criminal syndicates understand how to infiltrate our systems and agencies. This has been seen in South East Asia, it’s nothing new.”

There have been some signs of co-operation.

Tackling drugs is one of the main features in the Fiji-Australia Vuvale partnership, signed by Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama and Australian counterpart Scott Morrison in Canberra on Monday.

Uniting with Australia to battle problem

The two countries plan to do this “through the exchange of operational intelligence and other information sharing, as well as training, twinning programmes and exchanges on legal policy and enforcement measures.”

To ensure the Pacific is a peaceful and secure region, Australia has also re-affirmed a commitment to “closer defence, border security, policing, law and justice, intelligence and security co-operation.”

The spill-over effect of the Pacific lying smack in the middle of popular drug trafficking routes said to originate in Latin America, has been catastrophic.

Recently, there have been several seizures and discoveries of hard drugs such as methamphetamines and cocaine in the region.

One major case that comes to mind involved Papua New Guinean authorities intercepting a ‘lost’ boat full of cocaine reportedly worth US$50 million (FJ$109.63m) last year

In Fiji, roughly 120 parcels of cocaine washed up on the shores near the Lau Islands last September, with a total value of approximately AU$40m (FJ$59.72m).

Mr Sousa-Santos believes there are now growing markets for methamphetamines and cocaine in the Pacific, even though they are not as lucrative as Australia or New Zealand.

“For quite a few years, there was very limited overflow into Pacific Island states, but over the last five years, we’ve started seeing the slow growth of local markets,” he said.

“At first, it was very minimal, but over the past two years specifically, we’ve seen local drugs markets grow at a very fast rate. And that’s what we’re seeing at the moment; more and more young Pacific Islanders getting addicted to methamphetamines at all levels of society.”

Mr Sousa-Santos was in Fiji last week and met with the Minister for Defence and National Security, Inia Seruiratu, to discuss a regional response to the drug issue.

Minister for Defence and National Security, Inia Seruiratu with Transnational crime specialist Jose Sousa-Santos.

Minister for Defence and National Security, Inia Seruiratu with Transnational crime specialist Jose Sousa-Santos.

Mr Sousa-Santos has over 20 years of experience addressing transnational crime, terrorism and conflict resolution, and served as an advisor to the former Timor-Leste President and Prime Minister, Dr Jose Ramos Horta.

He is currently a researcher at New Zealand’s Massey University.

The growing drug problem in the Pacific – methamphetamines and cocaine specifically – needs to be addressed collectively, through a regional initiative based on co-operation at law enforcement level, says Mr Sousa-Santos.

Any such initiative should be led by Pacific countries, with support from Australia and New Zealand to overcome the lack of resources, including the low-capacity of regional law enforcement agencies.

That co-operation and pooling of resources remain woefully inadequate for now, Mr Sousa-Santos says.

This has allowed criminal organisations to take advantage of the Pacific’s geographically isolated location and porous borders to move their consignments relatively easily.

According to a 2016 United Nations Pacific threat assessment report, the major challenges facing regional law enforcement include limited funding and resources, out-dated legislation, increasing levels of tourism and a substantial geographical area to police.

But Mr Sousa-Santos believes that these can be overcome if Pacific governments – and their partners – step up and “think outside the box.”

He said: “Pacific governments are attempting to deal with the scourge of transnational crime and drug usage individually. I think this is based on cultural beliefs and national pride.

“Transnational criminal syndicates are counting on this. If the belief continues that Pacific states can deal with this [individually], they will fall alone. The way to deal with this has to be regional.”

Fiji’s leadership role in helping Pacific states

Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama after signing the Fiji-Australia Vuvale partnership agreement with Australian counterpart Scott Morrison in Canberra on September 16, 2019.  Photo: DEPTFO News

Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama after signing the Fiji-Australia Vuvale partnership agreement with Australian counterpart Scott Morrison in Canberra on September 16, 2019. Photo: DEPTFO News

Mr Sousa-Santos believes that Fiji could play a leadership role in helping other Pacific states improve in areas such as legislation and training.

Underlining the scale of the drug problem, the issue was raised at the 2018 Pacific Islands Forum meeting in Nauru, and featured in the leaders’ communiqué, the BOE security declaration.

Pacific leaders agreed on an “expanded concept of security” to cope with the dynamic threats in the region, including drug trafficking and organised crime.

There was a specific call for the security architecture in the region to be inclusive of regional law enforcement secretariats and organisations.

Mr Sousa-Santos is in favour of the idea, saying that an individual approach to dealing with this issue was doomed for failure.

“I’m a big believer in a regional law enforcement agency that’s looking at the issue not just from a law enforcement perspective but also with capabilities to engage with civil society and at policy level,” he said.

“We are fighting an enemy which is well-resourced and motivated, and that realises that the Pacific must be controlled to ensure that it does not become a hindrance to the movement of drugs to Australia and New Zealand.”

Edited by Jonathan Bryce

Feedback: sheldon.chanel@fijisun.com.fj



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