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The billion dollar drug bust

Avinesh Gopal
Tuesday, June 24, 2014

MARIJUANA has been the known drug produced in the country since time immemorial. It is said to have been introduced in Fiji by the indentured labourers from India. Although illegal, marijuana has been grown in the country for decades and is still being cultivated in various places and is available on the streets of the urban centres and in residential areas. However, little did people know 10 years ago that apart from the cultivation of marijuana, another drug was also being produced in the country, but in a laboratory. While the police were focusing their attention on raiding marijuana farms then as they usually do, they received information about the existence of an Asian crime syndicate in Fiji. The information specified that the group was involved in manufacturing crystal methamphetamine, which is commonly known as ice on the streets, and it did shock the police. For many people then, ice was something found or kept in a refrigerator as the only drug they knew available then was marijuana. But ice is a widely known drug now. Today, The Fiji Times takes a look back at the billion dollar drug bust, which was classified by INTERPOL as the biggest in the Southern Hemisphere in 2004. We bring you an exclusive interview with the police officer who was in charge of Operation Outrigger that resulted in the drug bust.

IT is a decade now since the biggest drug raid was carried out in Fiji.

While previous raids by the police resulted in the uprooting of hundreds of marijuana plants, this particular raid in 2004 netted something else.

Apart from the local media, international news organisations also reported on the early morning raid carried out on June 9, 2004.

On June 10, 2004, we reported that $1billion worth of ice and chemicals used to manufacture it were seized in a raid on a laboratory.

But while comments in the media regarding the raid were attributed to senior police officers who did not play a direct part in the bust, there was someone who kept a low profile at that time.

He was the Assistant Commissioner of Police Henry Brown, who was the inspector in charge of the Transnational Crime Unit in 2004. He was in charge of Operation Outrigger.

ACP Brown, who is the police force's Chief Administration Officer now, agreed to talk to us on the specifics of the investigation leading up to the moment the raid was carried out on June 9, 2004.

The police force received information about the existence of an Asian crime gang in Fiji and a joint team was formed with the Fiji Revenue and Customs Authority.

"I was inspector in charge of the Transnational Crime Unit and I formed a team of seven police officers and three customs officers to do surveillance," said ACP Brown.

"No one knew about the team apart from the very senior officers and we worked on the case for 13 months, piece by piece.

"The information we had was that the operation was financed from Hong Kong and the syndicate was in Malaysia. We shared information with Australian and New Zealand police.

"Slowly, the Hong Kong and Malaysian police came in. It was a typical Asian organised crime syndicate and there was a very typical response by the multinational organisations."

ACP Brown said the team of police and Customs officers could not believe the information that was coming in and the things that were rolling into the country.

He said the team kept a close watch on hundreds of gallons of chemicals coming in, the money trail and the movement of the Asian crime syndicate members in and out of the country.

"But we managed and the same team that did the surveillance was part of the raid, reporting direct to the police and customs hierarchy.

"Apart from the hierarchy, no one else knew about Operation Outrigger, which was the code name for the operation.

"We just gave that code name and there was no particular reason for it. If I mentioned outrigger to someone during my conversation, then only that person would know what it was," said ACP Brown.

On June 10, 2004, we reported that four Asian nationals and three Fijians were arrested in the raids carried out at a warehouse in Laucala Beach Estate at 3am the previous day and at some homes.

Five kilograms of ice and chemicals used to manufacture the drugs were seized during the raid at the warehouse.

ACP Brown said 35 officers from the Police Tactical Response Unit and 30 from the Criminal Investigations Department team were prepared for the raid.

He said the seven police officers and three Customs officers doing surveillance for the past 13 months were also part of the team that raided the warehouse and the homes.

"The raid was carried out early in the morning after the Police Tactical Response Unit team was briefed. The CID team was on stand by to interview the suspects.

"It was a very well thought out operation. After briefing the officers, we then hit the warehouse at Laucala Beach Estate and some homes that were also under surveillance.

"There were simultaneous raids in Hong Kong and Malaysia too at the same time we raided the warehouse and the homes of the suspects."

ACP Brown said local police officers surrounded the laboratory where the chemicals were kept to manufacture ice. He said experts from New Zealand were called in to enter the laboratory.

He said laboratories to manufacture hard drugs such as ice could be at the back of a room or even in a motel room.

But, he said the warehouse at Laucala Beach Estate was a super laboratory, which was only possible through organised crime rackets.

He said the drugs seized during the raid were destroyed while the equipment and chemicals confiscated from the warehouse were shipped to New Zealand.

"We didn't have the equipment and facilities to destroy them here so they were sent to New Zealand to be destroyed as they have the facility.

"The chemicals that were in the laboratory would have destroyed half of Laucala Beach Estate and other nearby areas if there was an explosion."

ACP Brown said the drug bust was classified by Interpol as the largest in the Southern Hemisphere in 2004.

He said the $1b worth of ice would have flooded the market in America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

"The $1b drug bust is a highlight of my career as I was overseeing the entire operation, from surveillance to the time the raids were carried out," he said.

NEXT WEEK: The trend for organised crime.

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