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'It put Fiji on the map for the wrong reason'

Avinesh Gopal
Tuesday, July 01, 2014

IT was once known as the only illicit drug that was produced in the country.

But over the past decade, there have been revelations of the existence of other drugs here apart from marijuana.

There have been cases of people being caught for trafficking "hard" drugs such as cocaine and heroin over the years, with crystal methamphetamine or ice as it is commonly known being the latest.

In 2004, a joint operation by the police and Customs officers resulted in the confiscation of ice and chemicals used to manufacture it.

The bust on a warehouse where the drug was being manufactured was carried out after a 13-month surveillance by the police and Customs officers.

According to the police, the $1billion bust was classified by Interpol as the largest in the southern hemisphere in 2004.

While there have been cases of "hard" drugs being found here until recent weeks, the police say they are not available on the streets and Fiji is being used as a transit point only.

Today, The Fiji Times brings you part two of an exclusive interview with a senior police officer who was in charge of the 2004 billion dollar drug bust.

MARIJUANA was a major focus area for police officers once as far as combating the cultivation, trafficking and sale of illicit drugs is concerned.

But over the years, the discovery of other drugs in the country has put the authorities on alert, resulting in the confiscation of some illicit drugs.

While the June 9, 2004 bust at a warehouse in Laucala Beach Estate, outside Suva City is known to be the biggest in Fiji, there have been other cases of drug busts.

These drugs were cocaine, heroin and crystal methamphetamine which is known as ice on the streets, which police say are not available on Fiji's streets.

Apart from these "hard" drugs, some people were also caught with tablets, some of which are used in the production of illicit drugs.

Going down memory lane, the $1billion worth of ice and chemicals used to manufacture it that were found at the warehouse was the biggest in the southern hemisphere for that year.

However, prior to that, the police had also intercepted a huge quantity of heroin that was said to have been destined for Australia.

In an interview, someone who played a major role in the 2004 drug bust revealed to me how that operation was carried out, considering that it was an Asian-organised crime.

The Fiji Police Force's chief administration officer, Assistant Commissioner of Police Henry Brown was the inspector in-charge of the Transnational Crime Unit in 2004.

His special team of seven police officers and three Customs officers worked on Operation Outrigger for 13 months and only people in their hierarchy were aware of it.

Operation Outrigger was a code name given by the team members for their surveillance on the drug racket.

But a few years before that, the police had intercepted a consignment of 357 kilograms of heroin in Suva that was heading for the Australian market.

The heroin that was confiscated reportedly had a street value of about $500 million then.

ACP Brown said the 2004 ice bust resulted in a change in the country's drug legislation, with stiffer penalties being put in place.

"It just put Fiji on the map for the wrong reason but it also showed that we have the capabilities to combat organised crime operations," he said.

"The trend for organised crime is they will always come up with something. You take them down and they will come back.

"In 2000, we intercepted 357 kilograms of heroin in Suva which was brought here through organised crime. In 2003 and 2004, they came back with the ice laboratory at Laucala Beach Estate.

"But in between, there were little cases of cocaine seizures at the airports and at post offices by the police and Customs officers."

ACP Brown said the 2004 drug bust is being used as a case study for police officers in some Asian countries.

The Interpol website says that Asian organised crime syndicates are behind a number of serious crimes whose impact is felt on a global level.

"Criminal activities are not limited to Asia itself but are carried out in countries all over the world. Major activities of these criminal gangs include drug trafficking, human smuggling, money laundering, illegal gambling, extortion and kidnapping," it says.

ACP Brown said it was advisable for police officers to keep abreast with changes in the manner in which organised crime gangs operated.

He also said the police had come a long way in sharing relevant information with other agencies like the Customs department on tackling the problem.

Asked if "hard" drugs were available on Fiji's streets, ACP Brown said they were not and Fiji was being used as a transit point only.

"There's no market for that in Fiji, it's too expensive. We have not caught anyone yet for being in possession of or selling hard drugs on the streets," he said.

Police spokesman Inspector Atunaisa Sokomuri also said there were no cases yet of anyone being caught with cocaine, heroin or ice on the streets.

Local and international police found a large amount of heroin at a businessman's house in Suva during a raid on October 28, 2000 and some people were arrested in connection with the find.

Apart from the local media, international news agencies also reported on the discovery of the heroin, which was said to have come to Fiji through some countries and was destined for Australia.

On November 2, 2000, we reported that officers from the Fiji Police Force, Australian Federal Police, Royal Canadian Mounted Police, US Drug Enforcement Agency and New Zealand Police were behind the heroin raid.

And on June 10, 2004 and in the days that followed, we reported on the bust at the ice factory and some people being charged by the police and produced in court.

The suspects in the drug cases were jailed by the courts and since then, the police and Customs department have kept a close watch on people coming into the country through the ports of entry, especially airports.

New equipment have also been installed at the two major airports in Nadi and Nausori by the Fiji Revenue and Customs Authority to detect prohibited items that may be coming into the country.

With the co-operation between the agencies, the police believe that they have disrupted the recent trend of trafficking, especially that of hard drugs, and more can be done through the combined effort.

But with the senior police officer saying that the trend of organised crime is that they will come back after being taken down, it is yet to be seen whether there will be another major drug bust in the country at any time soon.

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