Pacific islands are no longer free of organised crime
25 Jun 2024|

Drugs, human trafficking, illegal gambling, cyber scams and money laundering are among the most prevalent criminal activities reported in Pacific islands, which were once almost free of organised crime. While these crime types have a devastating human-security impact on the region, organised crime groups are also undermining the rule of law through influencing political elites—a point highlighted in the Pacific Islands Forum’s Regional Transnational Organised Crime Disruption Strategy 2024–2028.

Substances such as cocaine from Latin America and synthetic drugs such as methamphetamines from Southeast Asia have long transited through the Pacific Ocean from their countries of production, destined for Australia and New Zealand, which are two of the most lucrative narcotics markets in the world. Despite the existence of the transnational supply chains, Pacific islands had, in the main, remained untouched, acting as mere transit points for narcotics and effectively sparing the islands from the related law enforcement and public health repercussions.

Regrettably, for some Pacific islands, that’s only a description of the past. Large drug busts in Fiji, Papua New Guinea and Tonga and growing domestic consumption rates paint a darker picture—and it shows little sign of lightening. To no surprise, a multitude of organised criminal groups have been eager to acquire shares in these markets.

The protagonists in most cases are foreign criminals who dominate this scene, notwithstanding the presence of some local counterparts. They range from Asian syndicates to drug cartels from the Americas, from outlaw motorcycle gangs from Australia and New Zealand to criminal deportees and an array of less organised, more opportunistic groups and individuals from as far as the Middle East and Europe. Notably, while they are competing in the same market space, it is becoming more common for disparate groups to join forces for particular business ventures.

Drugs are big business and, unsurprisingly, the main focus of most organised crime groups. Despite dabbling in other illegal activities, such as racketeering, the groups derive most of their revenues from the narcotics trade.

Asian syndicates, such as Chinese triads, present a more complex problem. They tend to have more diversified business portfolios beyond drugs, including human trafficking and prostitution and the running of digital scams. Moreover, leaders of such criminal enterprises operate in both the criminal and legitimate business worlds. And (the cherry on top) they may also enjoy high-level political connections and support.

It’s difficult to rule out the possibility that some criminals promote agendas that influence the political scene in some Pacific countries. That was, for instance, the case with Wan Kuok-koi, a 14K triad leader turned ‘patriotic entrepreneur’. Wan was able to leverage the presence of a significant Chinese business diaspora in Palau to make inroads into the Micronesian country while befriending officials at the highest political level. Notably, his arrival coincided with the beginning of cyber scam operations run out of Palau and operated under duress by Chinese nationals.

The growing and detrimental presence of transnational organised crime groups, and the need to combat them, are acknowledged in the Pacific Islands Forum’s report this year on disrupting regional transnational organised crime. The document is driven by the ambitious vision of making ‘the Pacific Region … the hardest region in the world for organised criminal groups and networks to operate in’ and puts forward a multi-pronged whole-of-society approach that is prevention-focused, intelligence-led and determined to create a hostile regulatory environment to make it hard for criminal actors to exploit.

One of the many significant aspects of the strategy is that it proposes the first-ever regional definition of ‘transnational organised crime’ (TNOC).

Note that one globally accepted definition does not yet exist. Instead, countries worldwide and international organisations such as the United Nations have designed their own. Their common denominators include the involvement of individuals coming together over a period and planning serious criminal activities across borders for financial gain.

The proposed Pacific regional strategy is unique in that it expands the criteria for classification as TNOC. Specifically, it classifies TNOC as involving activities aimed at illegally gaining profit and those driven by illegally gaining power or influence.

The decision to draft the definition in a more encompassing way appears to reflect the new reality increasingly confronting the Pacific islands (and the world at large). The line between organised crime on the one hand and political influence and interference on the other is becoming more blurred. Here, the emerging concept of geocriminality, intended as a (state’s) use of criminal actors to achieve objectives in target countries, may be a valuable tool to understand this growing phenomenon.