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South American drug cartels have Pacific island nations in their sights

Map of smuggling routes
Source: 9 News Australia
Brisbane, AUSTRALIA — For thousands of Australians, the sun-drenched Pacific Islands represent the perfect getaway.
Fiji, Tonga and Samoa are just a short flight from Australia's major eastern cities, and the laidback island resorts cater to all budgets.
On the other side of the Pacific Ocean, South American drug cartels also have the island nations in their sights, for very different reasons.
The Pacific Islands have become a key transit point for huge volumes of cocaine destined for Australia and New Zealand, where very high prices are commanded.
Smugglers, often on well-stocked mother ships, face a 12,000km journey across the Pacific to reach Australia from South America.
For drug cartels, the lure of selling their illicit cargo for more than $200,000 a kilogram in Australia makes the risk worthwhile. In the US, one kilogram of cocaine fetches considerably less, around $30,000.
Over several months last year, 120 one-kilogram bricks of cocaine washed up on beaches in Fiji.
Each carefully wrapped brick was emblazoned with a buffalo in a field of grass. Believed to be bound for Australia, the drifting bricks were worth at least $25 million.
This phenomenon is becoming more and more common.
Cocaine bricks can tumble overboard during transfer from mother ships to smaller boats. Police and locals in Polynesia have also stumbled across large stores of cocaine anchored underwater in huge nets and tagged with GPS beacons. These nets can sometimes split, freeing the valuable cargo into the ocean currents.
In early 2019, over several weeks, more than one hundred kilograms of cocaine bricks worth millions of dollars began surfacing on Philippines beaches. Police said the drugs were likely destined for Australia.
"The US is the primary destination for cocaine but it is competing with other substances there and it is becoming increasingly harder to get it to the United States," Dr Andreas Schloenhardt, professor of criminal law at the University of Queensland, tells
"So the drug cartels are looking for new markets. Australia in particular has become one of them."
Smack bang in the middle of the South American cartel plans lie the Pacific Islands.
The vulnerabilities of the Pacific islands to drug traffickers are obvious. Archipelagic coastlines and vast tracts of ocean make borders difficult to patrol for first world states, let alone countries with limited financial resources.
It is estimated about 5,000 vessels transit the Pacific on any given day. This makes it relatively easy, especially for small vessels, to remain undetected and cross international borders clandestinely, Dr Schloenhardt says.
A Pacific transit enables South American drug traffickers to camouflage the country of origin of their illegal consignments. Large shipments are unloaded from a mother ship to a smaller vessel. The lighter boats can evade detection at the many small, uninhabited islets and atolls, waiting for the next step.