A South Pacific Drug Highway is Causing Big Problems for Island Communities

Last year, Papua New Guinean authorities intercepted and then lost a boat full of cocaine in the Vitiaz Strait, southwest of the Federated States of Micronesia. The vessel, crewed by six men from Hong Kong and one man from Montenegro, was thought to be carrying more than $50 million worth of coke.

Weeks later, reports emerged that some 120 parcels of cocaine had washed up on the shores of Fijian islands within the previous few months. Similarly marked packages had shown up in Tonga a short while before that, and at one point a 20 kilogram brick of coke was found floating in the waters off the east coast of Australia—all of them carried in on the tides from places unknown.

It seems improbable, even slightly absurd: the idea that random individuals in otherwise idyllic locations were stumbling upon hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of prepackaged narcotics, week after week. But these weren’t isolated incidents. For years, lost shipments of coke and methamphetamine have been drifting through the South Pacific, marooning on white sandy beaches, and falling into the hands of unsuspecting locals. And a recent investigation by The Guardian has cast some light over the impacts these drugs are starting to have on South Pacific communities.

The tropical archipelago that the islands of Tonga, Fiji, New Caledonia, and Vanuatu call home just so happens to straddle one of the most lucrative drug highways in the world. Take a look at a map and it’s easy to see why: a straight line drawn from Sydney, the cocaine capital of Australia, to Columbia, the cocaine capital of the world, runs straight through the middle of the South Pacific island chain. It’s a lucrative route for anyone willing to make the 14,000 kilometre voyage—especially considering Australia has one of the most extortionate cocaine markets in the world. But not all the product makes it to its intended destination.

Guardian reporter Kate Lyons, reporting from Fiji, examined the passage of “white drugs”—cocaine and methamphetamines—along the South Pacific trafficking route. What she found was an increasing number of people and communities in the region who had developed drug habits off the back of smugglers’ flotsam and jetsam.

One frequently cited case took place in the Federated States of Micronesia, where locals found 50 kilograms of cocaine floating in a lagoon and, thinking it was white powder washing detergent, used it as lathering. Lyons refers to another incident in 2017, when police discovered that almost an entire Tahitian island had become addicted to coke after a smugglers’ boat exploded on a remote reef. And while there have been reports of Fijian fishermen going out on the hunt for these lucrative packages—diving for sunken treasure that can yield “quick, easy money”, in the words of local police commissioner Sitiveni Qiliho—the larger worry is that people might be consuming the illicit substances unknowingly.

“Our biggest concern was that people may think these packages contain sugar, powdered toothpaste, or they may think it was baking powder or something along those lines and as a result subject their families to a harm that they shouldn’t have been subjected to,” Superintendent Brett Kidner, who served as senior liaison officer for the Australian federal police in the Pacific region, told Lyons. Supt Kidner pointed to some of the larger Pacific nations that have, in recent years, become plagued by drug abuse and related social issues—addiction, crime, gang violence, police corruption—as more narcotics have poured into the communities. “I definitely saw an increase in [domestic] use in Fiji, Tonga, [and] Samoa,” he said.

The torrential flow of white drugs through the South Pacific islets has started to erode the social fabric and reshape local communities. Lyons notes that, in the year 2017-18, arrests for drug-related crimes in Fiji nearly doubled from 685 to 1,061. St Giles psychiatric hospital in Suva, the nation’s capital, reported that close to 20 percent of its patients between May 2017 and April 2018 had substance abuse issues, mostly for ice addiction.

Places like Tonga have experienced a similarly sharp increase in methamphetamine use in recent years. Doctor Mapa Puloka, a psychiatric specialist in the psychiatric unit at Nukuʻalofa’s Viola Hospital, told ABC Radio he started noticing the drug about five or six years ago. Now, he claims someone is admitted to his clinic every fortnight with signs of meth abuse.

The South Pacific’s sharpening domestic drug use is, in part, a consequence of its unfortunate geographical location: sandwiched as it is between major suppliers in East Asia and South America on the one hand, and a thriving market of consumers in Australia and New Zealand on the other.

In 2003, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime noted that the region is “a strategic… location with regard to the global illicit drug trade”, and declared: “it is a fact that the Pacific islands are extremely vulnerable to exploitation by drug traffickers.” Author and professor of criminal law Andreas Schloenhardt has further suggested that “trafficking and consumption of narcotic drugs represent perhaps the longest-standing organised crime problems in the Pacific region.”

There is some effort being made to address the problem, though. Earlier this year, Fiji and Tonga both signed up to the Serious and Organised Crime Pacific Taskforce, alongside Australia and New Zealand, to combat drug traffickers and other criminal groups in the region. Alongside this clampdown on supply channels, experts are looking at ways to implement harm reduction measures and address the ballooning issue of domestic drug use. But developing a one-size-fits-all response for a region that spans so many different countries, cultures, and political situations comes with its share of difficulties—as a team of researchers from Australia and New Zealand have discovered.

Writing for the Harm Reduction journal in 2015, researchers Robert Power, Lucina Schmich, and Vili Nosa determined that “there should be a co-ordinated regional response, with the inclusion of targeted domestic programming, that will meet the needs for the Pacific Island countries and territories.” They further noted, however, that those countries and territories face “varying degrees of political stability”, and that “without stable government and democratic process, it is likely to remain difficult to develop consistent and effective legislation and policy for implementation of successful… drug programmes.”

Nevertheless: for authorities on the ground, persistence is key. Short of having a robust, root-and-branch approach to tackling the problem of drug trafficking in the South Pacific, Fijian police commissioner Qiliho suggested that waging a war of attrition against the smugglers and the dealers might be the best way forward.

“It’s something we can’t afford to take our foot off the pedal. We’ve got to maintain… momentum and keep fighting,” he said. “We’ve seen the effects of drug usage in other countries, we don’t want that.”

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