By Kalino Latu, Editor-in-Chief of Kaniva Tonga
The arrest of Colombian drug lord Dairo Antonio Úsuga, known as Otoniel, has rekindled deep concerns over Tonga’s ties to the South American drug cartels.
Colombia’s most wanted drug trafficker “Otoniel” has been captured, officials said over the weekend – a major victory for the government of the world’s largest cocaine exporter.
The world is now looking at whether Otoniel’s arrest will reduce drug trafficking to Pacific hubs.
Tonga remains a hub for the distribution of cocaine and methamphetamine, with drugs imported from Peru, Venezuela and Colombia. The drugs are then transhipped to Australia, New Zealand and China.
Speaker of the House Lord Fakafanua said it was becoming increasingly clear that Tonga was a key stopover on international smuggling routes, bringing drugs to Australia and New Zealand.
Tonga vs. Colombia
Tonga’s Colombian connection was first exposed in 2011 when Australian police revealed that a Colombian-led international crime syndicate allegedly bribed a former Speaker of the Tongan Parliament in a plot to import tons of cocaine in Australia.
Australian Federal Police (AFP) have uncovered a global trafficking operation that allegedly used yachts to transport cocaine from South America to Tonga.
Police alleged that in 2010, the union bribed the Speaker of Tonga’s Legislative Assembly, Lord Tu’ilakepa, who is now Minister of Agriculture, Food, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF ) of Tonga, to sponsor a Colombian drug chief to come to the kingdom.
AFP said drug boss Obeil Antonio Zuluaga Gomez wanted to run an operational hub from Tonga and oversee cocaine shipments.
In August this year, Tongan police charged more than 20 people after cocaine packages washed up on the beaches of Vava’u.
Police seized over 14 kg of cocaine with an estimated market value of US $ 2.2 million (top $ 5 million).
RNZ reported that the cocaine packages resembled those found in Vava’u in 2012 on the wreck of the yacht I dream.
Vava’u is considered a popular destination for boaters. Police believed the cocaine was anchored in Vava’u for hiding and that locals would find it and bring it to the field.
The drugs found in Vava’u are believed to originate from Colombia.
Her Majesty’s concerns
Drugs have become a major problem in the kingdom, with the King of Tonga criticizing parliament for not doing enough.
In August, Tonga’s parliament proposed making serious drug offenses punishable by death.
The proposal would have applied the death penalty for trafficking more than five kg of Class A drugs or for multiple drug offenses involving minors.
Tonga maintains the death penalty for murder and treason.
Drug trafficking is a problem across the Pacific, with drug seizures in French Polynesia, Fiji, and the executive director of the Pacific Islands Police Chiefs Network, Glyn Rowland, recently said the covid pandemic- 19 affected the drug routes in the Pacific.
“Certainly for our young people unemployment and poverty are a challenge right now due to the pandemic and this makes them very vulnerable to recruiting into organized crime gangs and facilitating drug movements,” Rowland said. .
Republished with permission from Kaniva Tonga.