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Australia’s growing international trade may be increasing the opportunities for illicit drug shipments.
Before recently signing onto the 12-country Trans-Pacific Partnership, Australia has locked in trade agreements with Korea, Japan and China and will ink a deal with India before the end of the year.
New trade comes with new risks.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has called for stringent measures to prevent drug dealers using the broadening trade channel between Australia and India.
A UNODC Month Year report says the growth of international trade also facilitates easier channels for illicit drug trafficking.
UNODC Regional Representative Jeremy Douglas explains.
"Typically, traffickers take advantage of the licit trade channel; they take advantage of the trade infrastructure that we put in place for good trade, positive trade. They take advantage of the containers that are moving around, they take advantage of the ports, the airports, the roads that are being built in the region to integrate and develop economically."
"Traffickers take advantage of the licit trade channel; they take advantage of the trade infrastructure that we put in place for good trade, positive trade", Jeremy Douglas explains.
In 2013 to 2014, Australian law enforcement agencies recorded more than 93 thousand illicit drug seizures – weighing approximately 27 tonnes.
According to the Australian Crime Commission these figures are the highest on record but they might only be the tip of the iceberg.
The raw materials for the backyard manufacture of the drug ice are often imported as pharmaceutical ingredients, and smuggled into Australia as plain chemicals.
UNODC’s Jeremy Douglas says major source countries for the chemicals are India and China.
“India is a producer of both pharmaceuticals and ephedrine, as is China, but what we’re seeing in South East Asia in the last 3-4 years is increasing quantities coming out of the subcontinent, out of India. We get reports from Myanmar, they give us a lot of case information, they show us the size and it’s very large seizures, especially pharmaceuticals, in the case of India.”
According to Douglas, “India is a producer of both pharmaceuticals and ephedrine, as is China, but what we’re seeing in South East Asia in the last 3-4 years is increasing quantities coming out of the subcontinent, out of India"
Jeremy Douglas says syndicates are becoming more sophisticated in the way they mask the trade.
“The chemicals primarily come out of China and India and then get shipped across the region where they’re made into finished drugs, methamphetamines. So what we’re seeing is that syndicates are diversifying geographically their manufacturing bases, but they’re still sourcing the chemicals in those places and then they are shipping them around and basically making the drugs all over the place.”
In 2013, nearly 300 kilograms of ephedrine was found in a container of Basmati rice shipped from India.
Four people were charged in Australia and a major drug syndicate in India was apprehended.
Despite the arrests, former Director General of Punjab Police and anti-drugs campaigner, Shashi Kant, says investigations stemming from the 2013 Melbourne seizures faced political interference in India.
"In Punjab, we did not expect a correct investigation, we didn't expect an impartial investigation, we didn't expect that things will be taken to a logical conclusion..and the same thing happened. Obviously, some political links are working at the centre also.. Because, both the governments, both the parties, whether it is Akali Party or the BJP, they belong to the same coalition setup."
Former Director of Punjab Police says: "In Punjab, we did not expect a correct investigation, we didn't expect an impartial investigation, we didn't expect that things will be taken to a logical conclusion..and the same thing happened".
Police discovered another Punjab-based synthetic drugs syndicate in 2013, helped by intelligence shared by the Australian Federal Police.
The alleged kingpin, Jagdish Bhola, a former police officer himself, named an incumbent minister of the Punjab state government as one of those involved.
But the Punjab government refused to investigate the allegations against the minister, and Shashi Kant believes that the drug trade between India and Australia has continued unabated.
"The only thing they did was that the end users, the drug users were caught and put in the jail, and drug peddlers, and particularly, drug lords and drug barons are still active in their trade. The trade is going on..yes, ways have changed, means have changed.. but it is going on. And another thing, the impact it has had is that the drug has become more expensive in India..that's about it.. but the drug trade is going on as it was... because there is political connivance... there is connivance on part of various security forces… not only police, I am talking of various security forces.."
Authorities in Australia, including the Australian Federal Police, Australian Crime Commission and the recently formed National Ice Taskforce were contacted by SBS Punjabi Radio, but refused to comment on whether this case has been followed up with the Indian authorities.
UNODC’s Jeremy Douglas says Australia has an important ongoing role to play.
“We would encourage Australia to maintain contact, but also maintain some form of strong engagement to make sure that justice outcomes are delivered if necessary, like if there is strong evidence that people are involved in trafficking controlled substances, then the justice outcomes that India has in place, should be delivered, and the same in any other country that would be in a similar situation.”
Douglas suggests specific ways of Australian cooperation to help Indian traffickers to be accountable.
"The capacity difference between India and Australia is massive... So, there should be some engagement with India to help them to conduct investigation, so, to help them show the connection between, say, the production in the country and how the diversion might be taking place, and how the criminals may be getting their hands on the chemicals and how they are being shipped."
"The capacity difference between India and Australia is massive... So, there should be some engagement with India to help them to conduct investigation", says Douglas.
He also suggests Australia should use its diplomatic clout to lobby India for action on the ICE trade and provide practical assistance to India’s anti-drug enforcement.
“Sharing intelligence is one thing. I think that’s key, you have to have information exchange between the Australian Federal Police and the Narcotics Bureau and the Police in India. That’s crucial; I understand that’s happening. But, often the drugs or the chemicals in this case, are shipped through several ports. That means that the chemicals that come from India may actually transit two or three countries on the way to Melbourne. So, this really means that you need to have several jurisdictions involved. That really means you need regional framework and regional cooperation.”
"The chemicals that come from India may actually transit two or three countries on the way to Melbourne. So, this really means that you need to have several jurisdictions involved. That really means you need regional framework and regional cooperation", Douglas explains.
But the UNDOC is not the only stakeholder concerned about Australia’s regional cooperation to fight drug trafficking.
Victoria Police recently sent a submission to the Federal Parliamentary Joint Committee questioning why financial support for Australian international operations, like the successful “Trident Taskforce” ended on June 30 this year.
The Parliamentary Committee and the National Task Force have targeted the remaining funds on education and intervention in Australia.
Member of the Joint Parliamentary Committee Chris Hayes says streamlining intelligence coordination across the region is key.
“We want that to be more effective, not just for the AFP but also the interaction with state and territory police as well. We just need to be able to interrupt its importation as well as work on issues such as rehabilitation, but we’ve got to actually try and do something about affecting its importation into the country, or indeed its manufacture.”
"We’ve got to actually try and do something about affecting its importation into the country, or indeed its manufacture", says MP Chris Hayes.
SBS requested interviews with Mr Ken Lay, National Ice Taskforce chief; the Australian Federal Police; the Victoria Police and the Australian Crime Commission, but they all declined.
The final report of the National Ice Taskforce to be released this week is intended to help develop the National Ice Action Strategy by the end of the year, as well as complement the next National Drugs Strategy.
In contrast, it’s still unclear what the government will do with the findings of the Parliamentary Committee.
Its members expect the report to be ready for release early next year, months after the National Ice Action Strategy is finished.
Contact the authors: email@example.com / firstname.lastname@example.org
-Full interview with UNODC Regional Representative Jeremy Douglas HERE
-Inquiry into crystal methamphetamine (ice) HERE
-National Ice Taskforce HERE
-United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNDOC) HERE