The arrest of Columbian drug leader Dairo Antonio Úsuga, known as Otoniel, has re-opened deep seated concerns about Tonga’s links with South American drug cartels.
The world now is watching whether Otoniel’s arrest will reduce smuggling of the drugs to the Pacific hubs.
Tonga remains a hub for cocaine and methamphetamine distribution, with drugs brought in from Peru, Venezuela and Colombia. The drugs are then transhipped to Australia, New Zealand and China.
Speaker of the House Lord Fakafanua said there was growing evidence that Tonga was a key stopover on international smuggling routes, bringing drugs to Australia and New Zealand.
Tonga vs Columbia
Tonga’s Colombian connection was first revealed in 2011 when Australian police revealed that an international crime syndicate headed by Colombians allegedly bribed a former Speaker of the Tongan Parliament as part of a plot to import tonnes of cocaine into Australia.
The Australian Federal Police (AFP) uncovered a global trafficking operation that allegedly used yachts to sail cocaine from South America to Tonga.
Police alleged that in 2010 the syndicate bribed the then Speaker of the Tongan Legislative Assembly, Lord Tu’ilakepa, who is now Tonga’s Minister of the Ministry of Agriculture, Food, Forests and Fisheries (MAFF) to sponsor a Colombian drug boss to come to the Pacific island.
The AFP said the drug boss, Obeil Antonio Zuluaga Gomez, wanted to direct an operating hub from Tonga and oversee cocaine shipments.
In August this year Tongan police charged more than 20 people after cocaine packages washed up on beaches on Vava’u.
Police seized more than 14kg of cocaine with an estimated street value of US$2.2 million or TOP$5 million.
RNZ reported that the cocaine packages looked similar to those that were found in Vava’u in 2012 on the wrecked yacht JeReVe.
Vava’u is regarded as a popular destination for yachties. The police felt that the cocaine was anchored there in Vava’u to hide and that locals would find it and bring it onto the land.
The drugs found in Vava’u is believed to have come from Columbia.
His Majesty concerns
Drugs have become a major issue in the kingdom, with His Majesty criticising Parliament for not doing enough.
In August Tonga’s Parliament proposed making serious drug offences punishable with death.
The proposal would have applied the death penalty for trafficking more than five kilograms of Class A drugs or multiple drug offences involving minors.
Tonga retains the death penalty for murder and treason.
Drug smuggling is a problem across the Pacific, with drug seizures in French Polynesia, Fiji and Executive director of the Pacific Islands Chiefs of Police network Glyn Rowland said recently the Covid-19 pandemic had affected drug routes in the Pacific.
“Certainly, for our young people, unemployment and poverty is a challenge right now because of the pandemic and that makes them quite vulnerable to recruitment into organised crime gangs and facilitating drug movements,” Mr Rowland said.