By Barbara Dreaver

Mexican drug cartels are using Fiji as a storage hub of vast amounts of meth aimed at the New Zealand and Australian markets.

Transnational organised crime specialist Jose Sousa-Santos tells 1News Pacific correspondent Barbara Dreaver how the massive operation is made possible by a ‘huge indigenous criminal network’, which only grows as the nation’s drug crisis worsens.

Tucked away down a dusty side road in Nadi, Yoel Barbershop is open for business.

Jerry Sivo is in his happy place, he’s the manager here, a popular barber with his clients. But he frowns as he talks. He’s worried about what he’s hearing – and seeing. Meth is everywhere.

“I talk to my customers – it’s not just in the city, it goes through the villages now. I am honestly going to say all of the western area in the village, they have it and some of my friends there are having it and even people in the outer islands [are] messaging me [that] it’s there,” he says.

He looks to his friend who has brought us to meet him and speaks to him in Fijian. His English is good but finding certain words can be frustrating, so he speaks in Fijian and this is what’s translated. “Now you can even see needles in the village, which you never saw before. Kids, people you never think would take it and some who used to take [only] marijuana are taking this now because it’s stronger. When you take meth and drink grog you can drink grog and last even longer.”

I ask Sivo if the people he knows who take meth understand what the drug is doing to them. He doubts their health is a consideration. “Because that high is really good, they don’t even care what it is doing to their bodies,” he says.

Sivo knows this firsthand. He’s not just a barber, he’s also a pastor and once he was a meth addict. He’s grateful to the church that helped him beat his addiction and now wants to make his family proud and encourage people not to make his mistakes.

But in his addicted days, he says, he didn’t care who he hurt in his quest for meth. “When I was coming down I started looking for [ways] to buy it, and I got agitated when talking to people even to the point where I wanted to hurt that person to get money just to get the high – I didn’t care about my relatives or parents,” he says.

“You feel powerful. I could do anything. When you take this drug you feel like you are the sh*t.”

‘It’s killing our children’

Jerry Sivo is in the minority – few have the strength to walk away from meth.

“It’s everywhere,” says Home Affairs Minister Pio Tikoduadua wearily.

It’s late afternoon on a Friday and parliament has been sitting all week with a raft of confronting issues on the table but, for the minister in charge of the police and military, the meth epidemic sweeping through Fiji is front of mind. “If we do not solve this drug problem in Fiji soon, our nation is going to be a nation of zombies.”

Children were being used by their parents to sell drugs to their friends outside school, he says. “Not only is it killing the youth, it’s killing our children too.”

Tikoduadua’s office is on the upper level of a majestic stone building in Suva housing parliament and the courts. It sits on the capital’s main road, Victoria Parade. Across the road are two premium hotels – one of them, the Grand Pacific Hotel, hosted a ball for the newly crowned Queen Elizabeth in 1953. Further along is the President’s residence and its sweeping tropical grounds.

It’s a beautiful area but, as you exit the parliament building, look closely and you’ll find scattered around the grounds are syringes and the little plastic packets in which meth is sold. It’s one of the top drug spots in Suva, the Museum grounds are another, many of the food stalls that line this road another. But go anywhere on this island and you can buy it – there are “pocket dealers” everywhere, hoping to make a quick sale to pay for their own next hit.

Fiji a storage hub for NZ meth market

We speak to someone we’ve agreed to call Vili, a drug user and supplier who’s done jail time. He was closely associated with the Rahman family who made the news here in 2020 when the family’s head Tallat Rahman arranged for the importation of 14kg of meth to New Zealand for the Comancheros, an Auckland motorcycle gang. Tallat is now serving a 16-year sentence in Auckland; His son Joshua Rahman is in a Fiji prison for possession of nearly 40 kilos of cocaine. It’s all sourced from Mexico and Vili explains the transportation route.

“They bring the yachts from Tonga to [Fiji Islands] Ono-i-Lau and Matuku, that is in the Lau group, and most of them have their pickup boats from there… They seal wrap it so it’s waterproof and they put [it in] like nets and buoys and GPS and put in the sea [to be collected]. Nadi is the main transport point in the Pacific and they [the drug cartels] were working closely with business owners.”

Fiji and Tonga are the two Pacific countries currently used by cartels as holding tanks to supply New Zealand and Australia with meth. Among Western nations, we’re a lucrative market to Mexican cartels because we’re prepared to pay the highest price for drugs. A kilo of meth can fetch up to NZ$200,000 (US$12,000) here, compared to NZ$700,000 (US$429,000) in the US.

Tonga is struggling with its own well documented meth crisis, with the potential introduction of the death penalty for drug crimes being debated in parliament this week after King Tupou VI expressed “grave concern” over the problem continuing to infiltrate every level of society.

‘Drip and feed’ tactic ensures high NZ meth price

What’s changed for Fiji in recent years is that, while it was once a Pacific stepping stone or holding tank for the cartels sending meth to Australasia, it has now graduated to being a storage hub. That means the meth is there for longer periods and a larger criminal network is required to manage it. The way the cartels ensure Fiji provides that network is to develop an addiction among the local population, which, according to transnational organised crime specialist Jose Sousa-Santos, has happened quite intentionally. After all, a carefully cultivated local market guarantees that strong criminal network.

And the long periods the meth is stored in Fiji appears to be a mercenary calculation too. “One of the most likely scenarios is the ‘drip and feed’ tactic where you would have a large cache of meth based out of Fiji and small amounts being fed out,” says Sousa-Santos. Refraining from flooding the New Zealand and Australian markets with large amounts of meth and instead “dripping” it ensures a higher price, he explains.

Mexico’s ‘champagne’ meth

The two main producers of meth are southeast Asia and Mexico, says Sousa-Santos. The majority of meth comes from Southeast Asia, but is lower quality, he says. “It’s produced in jungle labs but it’s produced at a higher rate because it’s in no man’s land – there’s Myanmar, Laos, there’s no policing of it.” In Mexico meth is produced in “proper pharmaceutical factories” he says, though still illegally.

“To give you a comparison, if you have a cheap wine, that’s what you get coming out of Myanmar and you would get the most expensive champagne coming from Mexico”.

Expensive is what ended up in Fiji. Earlier this year a tip-off resulted in two homes being raided in the Nadi area and nearly five tonnes of the drug seized.

“One of the biggest worries is that the size of the seizure – to put this into perspective – is enough to feed the Australian market for one year,” says Sousa-Santos.

One of those drug houses has new tenants now but the other, where more than three of the tonnes were stored, remains empty and we travel to the area of Namaka for a visit. There’s long grass around the house and the buzzing of mosquitos feels like the biggest threat. Neighbours tell us the meth was dropped there by two trucks about a week apart at night. On the first trip the men unloading package after package told the neighbours it was just household goods and made no effort to hide themselves. The second time they came they approached the house from the back, driving through empty land to reach it.

Photo: Fiji Police

‘A huge indigenous criminal network’

None of these neighbours wants to speak to us on camera, they’re on edge, nervous. They tell us those who spoke to local media after the raids in January received a late night visit from a carload of men and threats were made.

The second house is on Denarau not far from Fiji’s biggest tourist hotel hub and it’s more built-up here, fairly open to the road.

Sousa-Santos says it’s a huge red flag that there was no effort to hide the meth. “As an investigator and researcher for the past 20 years I have never seen this – that the groups involved, not just the local facilitators but the transnational groups did not feel like they had to place guards [or] make an effort to bury the meth, to put the meth in safe houses…

“What worries me is they weren’t concerned they felt safe enough to place them in a building and no one would touch them.”

This is more evidence, he says, of the cartels confidence in the “huge indigenous criminal network” they’ve cultivated in Fiji, using addiction as a kind of guarantee of loyalty.

Those who have money buy the crystal meth, the rest buy the powder which is often mixed with other ingredients. 1News was told of at least four recut labs, locally known as “recook labs”, on Viti Levu and Vanua Levu. This is where the meth is mixed with other ingredients to make it cheaper for the local market.

Connecting an economically vulnerable market (including children) to a cheap, highly addictive drug, is useful to a transnational crime syndicate, says Sousa-Santos, because it allows them to use Fiji as they like.

“What they have done by creating a local market, you have a greater number of very aggressive criminals and you also have larger access to law enforcement, to members of parliament, to commercial elites.”

Corruption in high places

The list of businesses and individuals in Fiji involved in the meth trade is long and they operate almost unchallenged in the island nation. Many of those involved have legitimate and in some cases respected, high-profile companies. The Nadi drug haul netted 13 arrests including kava bar owner Jale Aukerea who also exported kava to Australia.

Among those charged was Justin Ho, no stranger to the justice system. In 2020 cocaine possession charges against him were thrown out of court after the drug went mysteriously missing from the Namaka police station. Locals who know Justin Ho tell us that after that failed case he was on top of the world, spending up big, throwing money around.

But these arrests are just the tip of the iceberg and that’s hardly surprising given the level Fiji’s police force is allegedly compromised.

Several police have been arrested on meth-related charges. In the 4.8 tonne seizures an officer was charged with trying to skim some of it. Dealers have told us how easy it is to bribe sworn officers and when I ask Vili how corrupt the police are he shakes his head “very very very very much”.

A number of extremely high-level sources have told 1News more than a tonne linked to the Nadi drug haul is missing.

Acting Police Commissioner Juki Fong Chew is adamant the 4.8 tonnes seized is “in a secured location”. Whether that was all that should have been seized has not been confirmed but, he agrees, there is great concern over officers being compromised.

His minister Pio Tikoduadua agrees that corruption exists among police and although some had been “taken to task” over their involvement, there was an urgent need for change. “It’s something that really needs to be done properly [and] quickly,” he tells 1News. This week Tikoduadua’s statements were followed by an announcement of major changes to police leadership and “doctrine”.

One thing seems clear, the rot in Fiji started at the top and the expansion of Fiji’s meth trade was allowed to flourish during the years of former Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama (2007-2022) who ironically launched a military coup in 2006 to supposedly get rid of corruption.

He was jailed for a year in early May along with former police commissioner Sitiveni Qiliho who received a two-year sentence for their roles in blocking a police investigation at the University of the South Pacific. There are more ongoing investigations against the pair and one of them is an upcoming court case. It’s alleged that Bainimarama demanded that the acting police commissioner in 2021, respected veteran Rusiate Tudravu, terminate the employment of two police officers. Tudravu refused but when his boss Qiliho returned from overseas he sacked the two officers and Tudravu then “resigned” unexpectedly.

Tudravu is reluctant to talk to 1News as he will be a witness in the case, but he admits there were situations where he was asked to do things that were illegal or questionable by people in power. “There are elements of corruption. We have the political will now for the police to organise and conduct itself and I know we just need to weed out, identify corrupt police officers,” he says.

Many questions are being asked about Qiliho. When the Nadi drug seizures happened, Fiji’s Commander of the Joint Task Force Manoa Gadai alleged in a facebook post that Qiliho had stopped a joint military/police drug raid from proceeding in an area known as Fantasy Island, near Nadi. He wrote it in Fijian but it translates to “We were about to enter the drug cartel on Fantasy Island and the gentlemen in the folded arms (Qiliho) called and said we were to f@*k off and leave the area. I said to him that we had a joint operation with his officers in Nadi however those officers were also told off.”

The military are only asked for backup when it’s suspected arms might be involved. Military spokesperson Lt Col Eroni Duaibe says they are extremely concerned about the meth crisis. The fact there’s some evidence that has pointed the military towards certain [high-up] individuals being involved its very concerning and alarming to us,” he says.

While the military is distancing itself from the political space, it does want decisive action from government, he says. “The magnitude of it being pushed out on the streets is quite alarming, even to the extent there are children involved,” he says.

Massive impact on women and children

The Fiji Women’s Crisis Centre (FWCC) is at the frontline seeing firsthand how meth is infiltrating families, villages, authorities. Research manager Ilisapeci Veibuli says meth is so normalised now, people do it out in public and are not scared of the law.

“I never thought it would be as worse as it is now, I feel it’s every household (affected) because most of our communities we are living in extended families,” she says.

She sighs and briefly shuts her eyes. I ask her if it breaks her heart.

“It does because it is the women and the children who are mostly affected in this”.

What happens in families, behind closed doors is reaching new, frightening levels. Ilisapeci Veibuli describes the violence women are facing as more people get addicted. She says there’s a lot of marital rape, sometimes in front of children. Women and children are being forced to peddle drugs and “we’ve even had women who are forced into prostitution because there is no money to buy drugs. There are certain places that he takes her for prostitution, so when she gets money from there he takes the money and he goes and uses it for drugs”.

Vili, the drug dealer, confirms to us that if there is no money then wives are sent to the “top dogs” houses to service men there and they are given meth instead of cash to take home. There are also women coming from the outer islands, young women, who are given meth to get addicted and set up in houses to service the many men involved at mid- to high-level in the meth trade.

Sousa-Santos believes even the chiefs who hold power in the villages and provinces of Fiji are struggling to contend with those under the influence of addiction and the criminal element that fuels them. “One of the biggest things we had in Fiji, as a safety net, was the traditional power structures and it’s gotten to a stage where [they] don’t have any real influence on users and don’t have any real influence on the gangs and the groups that control the market,” he says.

HIV epidemic: ‘We are seeing 10 year olds’

The prevalence of meth addiction among the poor is resulting in horrifying ways of getting high when there is only a small amount of meth available. This is called bluetoothing or, as it’s known locally, blasting. It’s when a person injects themselves with meth and when high others around him will use the same needle to withdraw that person’s blood with the drug in it and inject themselves with it.

It’s hardly surprising that the meth trade has fuelled a spiralling HIV epidemic in Fiji.

Last year 82 people lost their lives to HIV and there were 415 new cases compared to 97 in New Zealand which has five times the population.

It’s not just the re-use of needles spreading HIV in Fiji, but the practise of ‘bluetoothing’ which involves users sharing their meth-infused blood.

So concerned is Fiji’s leadership it’s asked the United Nations for help – UNAIDS regional director to Asia Pacific and Central Europe Eamonn Murphy has been in the country holding crisis talks with government and health officials.

“It’s a serious concern,” he says. “We are seeing young people teenagers dying of HIV today and that’s shocking and alarming we are seeing 10 year olds, 12 year olds coming in to clinics testing positive because of drug use”.

It’s also an issue for the Fiji Women’s Crisis Centre who cannot keep up with the demand on their services. Ilisapeci Veibuli says they are waiting to hear about the test results of a 17-year-old who has been bluetoothing.

Call for Pacific-wide response

Eamonn Murphy says the consequences are not just for Fiji but the wider Pacific as Fiji is a transport, business and educational hub for the region. “People go from here across the Pacific so we are spreading HIV in that context… What needs to be done is a Pacific-wide response. Fiji will lead the way because it’s at the heart of it right now, but we need to make sure that other countries are testing, they are providing treatment.”

Nadi GP Dr Ram Raju says the HIV epidemic is “very sad indeed” and is stretching the limits of the medical profession.

“The number of cases are increasing on a daily basis. The mental institute in Suva, the only institute [providing] treatment, is reporting a very dangerous trend.”

Raju is also president of the Nadi Chamber of Commerce and he’s aware that his township is part of a yachting hub used by drug traffickers. “A lot of trade takes place on the open seas taking, advantage of our many scattered island resorts where the yachts easily dock… We do not seem to have enough manpower to try to arrest the problem,” he says.

Fiji is a nation of scattered island resorts and jetties. Access by boat is simple and attracts little attention.

“We are far off the track in trying to police our seas – the areas all around Fiji – so the drug trade it is a mind-boggling problem yes, despite the efforts being taken by the New Zealand and Australia authorities.”

Urgent action to prevent ‘bleak future’

New Zealand’s Pacific Detector Dog Programme, rolled out around the Pacific, has proven to be particularly successful in Fiji.

Superintendent Glyn Rowland is the New Zealand Police senior liaison officer for the Pacific, based in Suva. He says that working together with the Fiji Police is crucial in combatting transnational and organised drug crime.

“Our staff are working alongside our friends at the Fiji police service to intercept and challenge at the border… so that they have a capability along working around drug dogs”.

Another initiative is INTERPOL Project Blue Pacific, the Pacific arm of the international criminal police association, jointly funded by Australia and New Zealand. It’s being coordinated by the Pacific Islands Chiefs of Police and its head Shane McLennan who is also the Police Commissioner for Tonga says it’s about sharing information and intelligence.

“The project is about increasing the number of countries in the Pacific that are networked to those INTERPOL databases and control centres around the globe,” he says. “And for those countries that are yet to be connected, it’s about working with them to enable them access via a neighbouring country.”

And Australia is hoping to take a lead role in policing around the region with a $800 million AFP Pacific Policing Initiative, setting up a dedicated unit of Australian and Pacific Island police for rapid deployment and training centres.

Australia’s motivation on this initiative has been met with some suspicion given its geopolitical competition with China in the region.

Jose Sousa-Santos says what’s most needed is a regional narcotics bureau to strengthen what’s already in place for law enforcement in the region. He also calls for greater awareness here.

“New Zealand and Australia have for many years seen the Pacific as a buffer. Intelligence is received [in Australia and New Zealand] before the Pacific so why is this [drugs] seizure not being made before the drugs get to the Pacific?”

If there’s one thing easy to agree on, it’s horrifying and bewildering to see such a proud nation eroded by a meth epidemic.

Those on the frontline tell us it’s like being swamped by a tidal wave and people like Ilisapeci Veibuli at the the Fiji Women’s Crisis Centre say there needs to be action “because the way it is, the future of Fiji is bleak”.

We catch Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka as he’s heading from his office back into a parliamentary sitting.

He knows it’s about everyone working together, churches, families, agencies and the international community. “We will fight it, we will, we owe it to the future generations to fight it,” he says.

But what a battle it’s going to be.