Australia : Tongan authorities have seized more than 200 kilograms of cocaine during a maritime recovery operation off the coast of Tonga.
The massive seizure of narcotics, with an estimated Australian street value of up to $116 million, is part of a collaborative ongoing operation involving the Tongan Police, Cook Islands Police, Australian Federal Police (AFP), Australian Customs and Border Protections Service and the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (US DEA).
The drugs were concealed within the hull of a 13 metre yacht named ‘JeReVe’, which ran aground on the island of Luatatifo in the northern Vava’u province of Tonga.
The deceased body of a man was also recovered from the yacht and is currently subject of a Tongan coronial investigation to determine a cause of death. AFP forensics officers and Australian forensic pathologists are assisting Tongan authorities with this process.
Due to challenges caused by tidal conditions and its remote location, Tongan authorities took several days to examine the vessel.
The AFP received information from the US DEA during August 2012 that a small yacht carrying cocaine was en route from Ecuador to Australia and an investigation commenced.
The AFP, Customs and the US DEA had formed a specialised project to examine a number of identified vulnerabilities in the South Pacific being exploited by international organised crime syndicates.
Further information suggested the yacht was in waters near the Cook Islands and the project partners engaged the Cook Islands Police through the AFP’s International Network.
An extensive search in the region by Cook Islands Police maritime specialists and enquiries across the Pacific Transnational Crime Network (PTCN) were launched to locate the yacht. It was later discovered off a small atoll in Tonga.
The AFP is continuing to work with Tongan Police at the crime scene.
Investigations into the death and attempted drug importation remain ongoing.
Tongan Police Commissioner Grant O’Fee said he really appreciated the assistance of the Tongan Defence Service, Tongan Customs and the Transnational Crimes Unit.
“I’m particularly grateful for the technical and forensics support given by the Australian Federal Police, without whom this operation could not have succeeded.”
Acting National Manager Serious and Organised Crime David Sharpe said this international operation was significant involving the collaboration of multiple agencies spanning across the Asia Pacific.
”This is an outstanding example of the effectiveness and strength of the relationships with our partners in the South Pacific and in the US to combat transnational crime in the region,” acting Assistant Commissioner Sharpe said.
“Had the vessel reached Australia, the street value of the narcotics seized is estimated to be up to $116 million.”
“The public health impacts alone on such a large seizure illustrate the importance for a collaborative approach to disrupting transnational crime.”
Acting National Manager Enforcement Operations Customs and Border Protection Neil Sugget said that this seizure demonstrates the power of intelligence sharing across agencies both internationally and domestically.
“By using our networks and working together we were able to prevent over 200 kilograms of cocaine from entering our community,” Mr Sugget said.
“Vessels transiting through the pacific into Australia have been identified as a high risk area of drug smuggling, this seizure shows that our highly trained officers working in the maritime environment are alert to criminals and the smuggling methods they use.”
US Drug Enforcement Administration Attache David Cali said the agency is grateful for the opportunity to assist in the struggle against transnational crime.
“The Drug Enforcement Administration is proud of the relationships we have with our international friends,” said Attache Cali.
“We are committed to continued collaboration with Australia as her law enforcement and border protection services lead the effort to combat drug trafficking in the region.”
Cook Islands Police Commissioner Maara Tetava said this is a significant achievement for the PTCN which has been working towards providing better operational cooperation and intelligence sharing between Pacific nations.
“This operation is an example of how Pacific Island countries have been able to direct and influence combined transnational law enforcement efforts in the Pacific,” Commissioner Tetava said.