Corruption in Paradise: International crime groups target vulnerable Pacific countries
International crime syndicates are factoring in the cost of bribing officials as they use Pacific Island countries as gateways for smuggling drugs, people and guns, an expert says.
"Trans-national crime groups are very savvy," Jeremy Douglas, of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) told Stuff.
"They know how much these public officials make and they know that if they factor in the cost of corruption into the cost of a kilo [of drugs] ... it's probably not much in the grand scheme of things."
Law enforcement sources say crime groups are increasingly preying on vulnerable Pacific Island countries to traffic drugs to lucrative markets like New Zealand and Australia.
The problem is only worsened by the arrival of Australian and New Zealand bikie gangs, including the Rebels and Bandidos, and deportees building new crime networks using their old contacts.
There are fears that drugs could be manufactured on a vast scale on isolated islands.
People smuggling, gun running, money laundering and environmental crime, including illegal fishing and logging, are also of concern.
Douglas, UNODC's Southeast Asia and the Pacific representative, said trans-national crime was the "number one issue" at a recent meeting of Pacific Island police chiefs.
"They see the need for a higher level policy push, because the debate isn't really advancing and the governments are not able to get beyond low level operational activities.
Drug manufacturers seem to have set their sights on countries like Tonga. Photo: Fairfax NZ
"We really hope the leadership will start galvanising around some of the issues and look to solutions."
Douglas said growing trade and tourism created opportunities for organised criminals to move drugs and other illicit commodities, like tobacco, on flights or ships.
Public officials in the region were poorly paid and therefore relatively easy to corrupt with "mass volumes of money".
Some countries did not have the resources to effectively patrol their territorial waters and to search boats that might be carrying illicit cargo, he said.
Jeremy Douglas wants a more proactive approach to trans-national crime to be taken. Photo: Reuters
"These jurisdictions are highly vulnerable. It's relatively easy to smuggle stuff to them ... or through them."
A report written by a New Zealand police intelligence analyst said Chinese organised crime groups would likely target corrupt officials in the South Pacific to access isolated islands and manufacture methamphetamine.
Ports like this one are an easy target for people smuggling drugs and guns. Photo: David White/Fairfax NZ
The drugs would then be transported on fishing vessels to remote coastal areas of New Zealand, where they would be distributed by gangs, the report said.
"Chinese organised crime groups could obtain a larger profit margin by importing the finished product rather than an ingredient used to make it."
Guns like this could be being smuggled into the hands of gangs in New Zealand, by way of Pacific nations like Tonga. Photo: David White/Fairfax NZ
Ruthless Mexican cartels are also understood to be eyeing up Pacific Islands as a gateway to Australia and New Zealand.
Officials on both sides of the Tasman are dedicating staff, training and other resources to strengthening borders and law enforcement in the region.
An Australian Government Department of Immigration and Border Protection spokeswoman said organised crime was a "serious risk" to the Australian border and the Pacific was a "high priority" region.
"The Department ... continues to target all of the different methods criminals try to use to illegally import drugs and other illicit goods into Australia, including the use of small craft vessels across the South Pacific."
Australian Crime Intelligence Commission chief executive Chris Dawson said the geographic positioning of Pacific Island countries, midway between key source countries and lucrative drug markets, made them "attractive as staging areas for organised crime networks".
New Zealand police refused to release a recent drug intelligence report titled 'Illicit drugs in the Pacific Islands — Sources, distribution and the risk to New Zealand', because it contained operationally sensitive information.
A summary of the document says the country's ties with Pacific Island countries makes their use as a transit point for drug consignment "an area of awareness".
The deportation of people from overseas countries, and the presence of gangs, might create new crime networks and increase the risk of drug trafficking, the summary says.
Recently retired detective superintendent Don Allan, who worked as a police officer in the Pacific for more than a decade, said Fiji and Papau New Guinea were most at risk because they were significant shipping hubs.
However, organised criminal groups have exploited other Pacific Island countries like Tonga in the past.