The growing ice trade between Latin America and Australia
22 Apr 2015|

Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s recent announcement of a National Ice Task Force is long overdue given the reported severity and significance of the problem. The task force will have the colossal task of examining all existing national efforts to address the problem and identifying ways to take a systematic, comprehensive and coordinated approach integrating education, health and law enforcement to combat the scourge of methylamphetamine.

For those who doubt the efficacy of strategies that lean on enforcement, this will be a perfect opportunity to demonstrate the merits of alternative approaches.

Headed up by former Victorian Police Commissioner Ken Lay, the recently released Australian Crime Commission report, ‘The Australian methylamphetamine market; the national picture’, renders an unambiguous image of Australia’s extensive and entrenched ice situation.

While law enforcement agencies acknowledge the ice issue to be multifaceted, they’re concerned by what they see as the internationalisation of trade in methylamphetamine. Driven by the highly lucrative Australian market, drug syndicates are pushing hard to smuggle ice into Australia.

International organised criminal networks have never been more involved in the ice business, resulting in a seemingly endless supply. Well-known groups in China, Vietnam, the Middle East and West Africa are actively involved in Australia’s ice trade. Drug cartels in Latin America are emerging players too, as they seek to deliberately diversify their traditional cocaine-oriented portfolio—they’re significant players in Australia’s cocaine trade—to secure a share of the ice market.

Sinaloa cartel’s presence in Asia proves its interest in ice-production at industrial scales. It has forged ties with Sun Yee On, and the 14K triads in Hong Kong have provided the cartel with access to precursors. In exchange, the triads receive cocaine for the Chinese market and access to Sinaloa’s network to smuggle Asian nationals into the United States.

In trying to shorten the distance between both sides of the Pacific, the Mexican cartel has managed to penetrate the Philippines as well. While one Filipino district police chief  confirmed the cartel’s intentions to dominate the drugs market in the country, the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) busted the biggest ‘shabu’ (methamphetamine hydrochloride) lab in 2014—a lab that could’ve been producing up to 100 kilograms of ice per day.

Production capacity and supply channels are important to Latin American drug syndicates, allowing them to sustain their expanding business in the Asia-Pacific. Whether by land, air or sea, these transnational criminal organisations are fostering new and more efficient smuggling routes to their blooming consumer markets, as well as securing those that already exist. And Australia’s certainly a market in bloom.

That should put criminal and drug syndicates from countries like Bolivia, Colombia and Peru onto the radar of Australia’s law enforcement agencies. Those countries are top cocaine-producing nations according to the UNODC’s 2014 World Drug Report, but are also significant for their traditional role as transit hubs for drug syndicates targeting Australian shores.

Add to that list Ecuador and Panama. Both nations have been key players in providing shipment-launching platforms to both Colombian and Mexican drug syndicates and have a track record on FATF’s ‘black list’ as high-risk and non-cooperative AML/CFT jurisdictions. Argentina has also gained importance as a site for the growing cocaine-ice trade relationship; Central American countries like El Salvador and Nicaragua don’t lag behind in the transit category either.

Latin America’s drug trafficking transit hubs are no longer cocaine-exclusive. While the National Ice Task Force already has a full plate, further engagement with key Latin American nations should be an essential part of the response.

In working to prevent methylamphetamine trade from Latin America, greater police-to-police cooperation across the Asia-Pacific will be required. Despite unprecedented levels of joint seizures and associated arrests, trans-Pacific cooperation with Latin American counterparts remains undeveloped.

The Australian government’s Law Enforcement representatives overseas can be found in the AFP’s International Liaison Officer Network, which comprises more than 85 appointees in 30 countries. But there’s only one stationed in Latin America, located in Bogota, Colombia.

Australia’s approach in Colombia has proved successful when providing police-to-police assistance for criminal investigations and collaborative operational activities to counter drug trafficking. It’s unclear why the AFP hasn’t established roots in Mexico, Ecuador and Panama—all countries  used by drug syndicates to expand their industry.

It’s important that Australia’s presence those countries is felt; appointing AFP officers with experience in anti-narcotics operations and who are fluent in Spanish seems a relatively low-cost measure that would pay dividends.

Presence is one thing, capacity-building is another. Australia’s vast expertise patrolling its borders should be shared with counterpart authorities in Latin America. Workshops led by the Australian Border Force could prove effective in relaying lessons learned and strengthening competencies to address the ice issue even before it reaches Australian shores. Likewise, further criminal intelligence engagement would lay solid groundwork for the future, particularly if the Australian Crime Commission considers using special envoys to Latin America

There’s plenty room for improvement when it comes to ties between Australian and Latin American law enforcement. With both Mexican and Colombian drug syndicates present in the country, Australia needn’t fight solo. A stronger approach in the Americas will be beneficial to Australian interests.