Repelling the Pacific drug highway demands action

When it comes to the trafficking of illicit drugs, it is most often what goes unseen that is cause for most concern. 

Over the last five years, the U.S. Coast Guard has estimated that it has been able to intercept only between 10 and 15 per cent of all illegal drugs being moved to American shores via sea. 

That success rate comes after a decades-long war on drugs in South America and and the investment of billions of dollars in detection technology. 

But there is a new flashpoint in the global drug trade. And Samoa is at its centre.

Samoa lies between two of the world’s largest production centres for methamphetamine and cocaine: Southeast Asia and South America respectively. On its other side are two of the world’s most lucrative markets for illegal drugs: eastern Australia and New Zealand.

Billions of dollars of each are now being trafficked through the so-called Pacific Highway for drugs. 

Withstanding this traffic and protecting Samoa's borders from the scourge of narcotics requires preparedness. 

The withdrawal of charges yesterday against a Vietnamese national, An Tran Thai, with smuggling drugs including heroin into the country, raises questions about whether we are equal to the challenge. 

The prosecution provided no explanation when requesting charges of possessing narcotics (first laid against Ms. Thai in July) be withdrawn in a hearing before the Supreme Court on Monday. 

But it is a more than fair inference that the sealed blister packets Police seized from her luggage - which had the appearance of vitamins or antibacterial medication - did not, in fact, contain a Class A drug despite being billed as having a street value of $400,000 at the time. 

We must ask why it took nearly six months to establish the facts about what was in Ms. Thai’s luggage; something that can be done at other major international airports with swab tests in seconds. 

A seeming false positive of this magnitude in turn raises questions about Samoa’s technical preparedness for combating the drug trade on our doorstep and raises the possibility of false negatives or undetected drugs flowing through Samoa’s borders. 

Ms. Thai continues to face charges unrelated to drugs which we will refrain from commenting on as they remain before the Courts. 

The head of Interpol, Kim Jong Yang, speaking in American Samoa this August, noted that Pacific states now faced huge challenges in the form of large, difficult to monitor ocean borders and enforcement technology that struggles to keep pace with smuggling methods employed by cartels.

"Where opportunities to generate criminal proceeds exist, criminal groups will strive to break into this space, and ultimately, take root," Mr Kim said.

We see the evidence of the Pacific drug highway on our neighbours’ shores every day such as the more than 100 errant packages of cocaine that have washed up on Fijian shores. 

But the use of the islands as a thoroughfare has had an undesirable secondary effect: the creation of local drug markets

We these effects to our south, where Tonga is struggling with a widespread methamphetamine and only one rehabilitation clinic. Even closer to home, American Samoa is at the height of a drug war. Governor Lolo Moliga confirmed that 25 separate raids last year netted over $2 million in drugs and narcotics' constant companions: firearms. 

So far, Samoa appears to have been spared the brunt of this new regional phenomenon; the ravages of drug addiction in Tonga have not been replicated here. 

But last year Tafuna Tauialo, of Vaitele and Vancouver Washington, attempted to import some $60,000 worth of methamphetamine into this country. 

And it was only last month that Police uncovered what it described as the biggest drug operation uncovered in the history of the nation when eleven people were taken into custody and 10,000 marijuana plants and firearms were seized. 

We rightly lauded the strong Police work that led up to that well executed operation. 

But enforcing the security of our borders is a different matter. It requires law enforcement contend with more sophisticated criminal cartels with immense financial resources.  

Keeping pace with them is costly. One trained drug detection dog comes at a price of $200,000. As at March this year we had only two patrolling at Faleolo International Airport at a time when our borders are under more potential pressure than ever.  

The mobile X-Ray scanner project at the Matautu wharf has an estimated final cost of $4 million, to be footed by the Asian Development Bank. 

We welcome the deployment of such new technology but we may need more of it. As the highly unfortunate case of Ms. Thai shows we are not operating with the technical sophistication required to adequately detect those who seek to bring drugs into Samoa. 

If we are to continue to withstand traffickers - and the corrosive consequences that come with becoming a pitstop in the global drug trade - a serious review of our drug detection capabilities is needed. 

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