No quick fixes for drug trade in Samoa

A startling image on the front page of our Tuesday edition showed an armed policeman in military fatigues complete with bullet proof vest, weapon pointed down to the ground and hat obscuring his eyes.

At first glance, it looked as if it belonged to the World News section and was from a drug raid on a Mexican cartel. It took a moment to register that yes, in fact, it was here in Samoa.

As detailed in the story, Samoa’s Police had executed a pre-dawn raid on properties in Faleatiu and Fasitoo Uta, and had just returned to their headquarters in Apia when the photo was taken.

This image of armed Police is not new. It may still be jarring to some, but it’s not new.

In the last year alone Police raids have been highlighted in the pages of this newspaper at least a dozen times; most recently in January for a raid in Faleatiu.

A few of those stories have featured police in full military get-up.

Samoa’s Police Commissioner, Fuiavailiili Egon Keil, has been an outspoken advocate for cleaning up the drug trade in Samoa. He has previously addressed the arming of certain police officers who participate in the raids as a necessary safeguard.  

Despite knowing all of this and of course acknowledging that the drug business is a dangerous zone, it is still a remarkable sight to see our Police officers dressed for war. The war on drugs, that is.

Back in 2017, when the Minister of Police was given sole authority to arm the Police when required, the protection of the force was the primary concern, especially as their drug raids had become more of a national event with the large hauls of marijuana plants confiscated during the excursions.

For many years, there were specific locations on our map that gained notoriety as the hubs for marijuana cultivation.  While those locations still flare up as hotspots now and then, their notoriety has dimmed down with inroads made by Samoa’s Police to put an end to the drug farms.

The demystification of so-called drug lords have also helped to reduce the effect these territories have had on the general population. Police efforts to rid the country and specific communities of marijuana farmers and sellers; have made the raids less of a titillating occurrence and more of a calendar event.

The raids have become just another news item.

In looking at the positives of eradicating drugs from Samoa, we are grateful for the fact that the raids have become just another news story, because over the last year there have been no serious incidents as a result of armed Police. The negative side, of course, is the need for such raids in the first place.

What is worth noting is the efficiency and success of the Commissioner’s tactical operations.

The fact that village councils are also working with the Police to provide safer communities for families is an encouraging testament to the Ministry’s efforts to weed out the bad seeds and normalize working together towards safer village rule.

“We have received so many reports of selling marijuana up in those areas as well as shooting to intimidate civilians and so we couldn’t wait any longer to do something,” said Fuiava.

Those images of a Mexican cartel are starting to flash again.

Encouragingly, the Commissioner pointed out that during their raid in Faleatiu, they saw fewer efforts to replant.

“The plantations we have raided before, we just went around there again looking if they have started replanting more, but there aren’t any more, for the most part up there [Faleatiu],” he said.

He acknowledged that a shift further inland for determined marijuana growers made the raids more difficult but their team was able to utilize drones to scope out the areas of interest.

It’s clear that Police action is making a difference with impressive hauls of guns, money and confiscated plants and drug paraphernalia, but we wonder about a lasting legacy of change.

Will any of these interventions make a difference in the long term?

We are choosing to believe so, but perhaps with actions needed to complement efforts already made.

If Police raids are a reactive measure to the supply of drugs in Samoa, then what is being done about the demand?

After all, you can’t have a drug trade without customers. And what is out there to help those with drug problems?

Well thankfully there are avenues available for treatment, such as through the Salvation Army which launched an addiction service in August 2018 that is open to anyone who is seeking help.

The Ministry of Justice and Courts Administration also has a Drug and Alcohol Programme, but specifically for offenders.

In recent years, the Salvation Army told this newspaper that they have found that amongst those they were treating, drug abuse comes about due to peer pressure and the accessibility of substances.

Surely we must be on the right track then, with the raids breaking up farms and cutting off supply chains as they show up on the Police radar.

Fuiavailiili has undoubtedly brought his own style to the role of Commissioner. We hope the bold drive to eradicate drug farms in Samoa will continue long after his retirement. Otherwise the hard work will be undone at the first sign of complacency by Police.

And the way families and individuals get so deep in the drug trade; it would only take a momentary lapse in focus to get planting, growing and selling again.

And the greater the investment by farmers, the greater the risks taken to protect at all costs and that’s where dangerous weapons come in to play.

As we have seen in the latest raid, there are at least three women in the group of seven who were arrested for cultivating, possessing and distributing marijuana amongst other charges. The involvement of children points to a family affair.  

The Police Commissioner said there were about four homes that had been raided and at one location, children were seen rushing to flush drugs down the toilet as they saw approaching officers.

It’s reprehensible to think that any child has been taught to react in such a way.

The indoctrination of children in to a life of crime is a serious failure by parents, family and community. At the sight of police, a child’s first instinct should not be to quickly conceal or dispose of drugs.

What will their families, community and police do now to reverse that adversarial mindset they have been taught?

If there is to be any lasting change in the efforts to eradicate drugs from Samoan communities, there needs to be more than tactical police interventions and treatment of addiction.

The younger generations require guidance to move away from what their parents or extended families have lived and known for years.

So while we applaud the Police’s efforts to bring an end to the operators of “marijuana syndicates” - said to be users of methamphetamine, according to the Commissioner – we also hope to see more positive outcomes for those who are personally affected by these raids.

Those who have had family members sent to prison, livelihoods disrupted, social structures destroyed and all they’ve known taken away from them.


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