The Pacific islands have become the centre of a drug trafficking boom and are now regarded as a new highway for narcotics transported from Latin America to Australia.
Cook Islands falls at the heart of this route and a private investigator says it makes our waters extremely vulnerable in the transport of drugs by sea.
Former Australian detective Rod Henderson said the northern group are particularly exposed to yacht traffic due to prevailing winds.
Henderson said biosecurity in the group is sparse and traffickers have an easy run through the area.
“The other significant weakness in the Cook Islands shield of defence is the inspection of sea containers arriving on Rarotonga. It is reliable reported that unless there is security alert only a handful of these are checked,” Henderson said,
“Until international agencies have a presence in our islands I am afraid we may become the hub of drug movement in the South Pacific.”
According to a report this week by British newspaper The Guardian, cocaine and methamphetamines are being packed into the hulls of sailing boats in the US and Latin America and transported to Australia via South Pacific islands.
In the past five years, it reports there has been an explosion in the number of boats, sometimes carrying more than a tonne of cocaine.
The local authorities say the vast ocean space of the Cook Islands is proving a major challenge to keeping tabs on movements of sailing boats and yachts in our waters.
Lack of resources also pose an obstacle in regularly monitoring the vast exclusive economic zone.
Senior customs officer Walter Tangata said they normally rely on the intel provided to them by New Zealand authorities to carry out investigations.
Tangata added there had not been any drug busts in our waters.
He said the yachts and sailing boats what wished to land at the local ports were searched properly by customs officers.
Tangata said these yachts could only land at Penrhyn, Manihiki and Pukapuka in the northern group and Rarotonga, Aitutaki and Atiu in the southern group. Suwarrow, a national park of the Cook Islands, is also a hub for yachts and sailing boats traveling through our waters.
“These islands have customs officers and police officers who are trained to carry out the responsibilities required by the Customs Service. For Suwarrow, we train the park rangers who look after the island to carry out customs and immigration work,” Tangata said.
“To visit the rest of the islands apart from those mentioned, the yacht owners will need to fill out a special form seeking permission and this will include other agencies such as Ministry of Health and biosecurity.”
Inspector Tepaki Baxter, the commanding officer of Police Patrol Boat Te Kukupa, said they had not been active lately on the surveillance front at sea.
The vessel was out of action for almost a year, undergoing maintenance work in Cairns, Australia, and returned home this month.
However Baxter said they had been working with their counterparts from other Pacific island countries in an effort to monitor suspected transhipments of drugs in regional waters.