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Shining light on the Pacific’s dark networks

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The Australian Border force displaying their largest haul of illicit drugs in two years on 15 February, 2016 (Photo: Reuters/Jason Reed).

In Brief

Over the past few decades, the operational arrangements of numerous organised crime groups operating in the Pacific have developed into sophisticated networks with shared objectives. The increasingly adaptive nature of these groups means that their illicit activities are no longer bound by discrete, local or traditional geographical locations. The December 2016 seizure by Australian Police and Australian Border Force officers of almost one tonne of cocaine is a recent example of criminal organisations utilising network structures to move vast quantities of illicit drugs across the Pacific.


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These crime groups operate as a ‘dark network’, or in some cases, as a series of ‘dark networks’ that draw on the resources and skills of a variety of criminal entities located in distinct geographical locations across the region. This network approach allows criminal groups participating in these types of activities to maximise their ability to move large consignments of illicit drugs with relative ease across great distances while simultaneously minimising the risk of detection.

Dark networks maintain buffers between different actors in the network and are characterised by divisions of labour based on flexible arrangements between multiple groups. Each group is neither superior nor subordinate to another group in the network. The lack of hierarchical arrangements across each network makes it extremely problematic for law enforcement agencies to identify and combat these entrepreneurial criminal organisations. This in turn creates a multitude of challenges for Australian policymakers when deciding on the best course of action.

What is clear is that over the past several years, Pacific Island nations have increasingly become transit-hubs for large shipments of illicit drugs, with many originating from Latin America. For example, the majority of cocaine entering Australia has been channelled through third countries in the Pacific, passing through hubs such as New Caledonia, Tonga, Vanuatu and Fiji. In 2010–11, the majority of cocaine intercepted coming into Australia arrived ‘via small craft by way of the Pacific Islands’. In 2013, this was further demonstrated by several large seizures including a seizure from a luxury yacht that netted 750kg of cocaine bound for the Australian market.

The seizure of December 2016, in which 600kg of cocaine was interdicted in Tahiti, indicates the importance of these Pacific transit hubs to the networks’ operational success. Efforts to increase and develop Australia’s maritime interdiction operations will be the key to ultimately disrupting these dark networks.

In order to successfully track and disrupt the operations of these loosely coupled networks, policymakers are presented with two options: kinetic and non-kinetic approaches. Kinetic approaches focus on utilising law enforcement agencies to offensively target key members of organisations in the network. The problem with this approach is that while it aims to either remove or weaken the leadership of certain organisations, it fails to disrupt the operational ability of the larger network. As such, kinetic approaches do little to reduce the flow of illicit drugs into foreign markets.

For Australian policymakers, non-kinetic approaches offer more promise as they tend to concentrate on increased intelligence-gathering activities and the improved sharing of intelligence to support investigations and operational activities. This approach should seek to identify potential weak points in the sophisticated dark networks that operate across the Pacific. Intelligence serves as a vital check and balance in so far as the consequences of particular policy decisions are fully understood prior to implementation. The use of network analysis as a methodology will provide new opportunities to accurately identify critical nodes across the Pacific and the resources relied upon by these dark networks to function effectively. Critically, this analysis can support decision makers to develop longer-term planning strategies.

In 2015, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) identified that maritime seizures were responsible for the largest quantities of confiscated illicit drugs. This demonstrates the paramount importance of maritime interdiction efforts in combatting the flow of illicit drugs into Australian markets. The continued funding of task forces that focus on maritime interdiction, coupled with the development of methodologies and new technologies that draw on network analytical tools, must be prioritised to bridge the gap between policy and operational objectives.

In 2017, every Pacific Island nation will be undertaking a national risk assessment, which is a requirement of the Financial Action Task Force. This is a significant opportunity for Australian policymakers and practitioners to lobby their counterparts in the Pacific to include dark networks in upcoming assessments. This would be a major step to further address and combat the increasing use of the Islands as transit hubs for the flow of illicit drugs in the region.

Anthea McCarthy-Jones is an Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Business, Government and Law, the University of Canberra.

One response to “Shining light on the Pacific’s dark networks”

  1. Why don’t we have a RICO law to take down the organized syndicates no matter now fluid their organizations are? It works well in the USA.

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