SUVA, Fiji — There’s only one way in and out of the biggest meth slum in Fiji, and it’s an unsealed dirt road that ends in a cul-de-sac. The taxi cab jostled as it made the drive, slowly, entering the heart of one of the many informal settlements peppered throughout the nation’s capital of Suva, a cluster of corrugated iron shacks.
It was quiet. Though just five minutes from the city centre, the slum is at least 50 kilometres from the paradisal Fiji of postcards and in-flight magazines—one of luxury resorts, white sand beaches, and coral reefs. There’s only one reason why a tourist might come to this area.
The car idled in the centre of the cul-de-sac as the dealer—a skinny man in his 40s with wide, bloodshot eyes—approached, opened the door, and climbed into the backseat.
“I’ve got everything,” he told VICE World News, when asked if he was selling meth. “Green, white, everything.”
He leaned forward and showed off a handful of small zip-close bags containing various quantities of “white” crystal methamphetamine, also known as “ice.” Some bags were $20 USD, some $45. Or, he said, he could go inside and get a gram for the equivalent of about $400.
Prices are high. But so is demand. “People prefer white more than green [cannabis] now,” he explained. “Young, old, everybody.”
Despite Fiji’s remote South Pacific location, its meth trade is booming. While flocks of tourists have been shepherded from planes out to the luxury resorts that dot the country’s perimeter, the past five years have also seen crystal methamphetamine flood into the mainland’s urban centres. This is due in no small part to Fiji’s location in the middle of a transnational drug corridor running between East Asia and the Americas, some of the world’s biggest manufacturers of the drug, and Australia and New Zealand, the world’s highest-paying markets.
When visiting Fiji in August, VICE World News was told that procuring meth is now as easy as “buying a lollipop,” with a growing number of locals cooking the drug in-country, child sex workers using and selling it on the streets, and the deepening influence of narco-corruption compromising some of the highest levels of society. Fuelling it all is surging demand, a floundering economy, and a deep-seated local market introduced by criminal deportees from the U.S., Australia, and New Zealand. And amid the ice boom, poverty, violence, and crime are rising to all-time highs.
Between 2009 and 2018, arrests related to synthetic drugs like meth increased almost tenfold in Fiji. Drug-associated domestic violence has spiked, intravenous meth use and needle-sharing has contributed to a historic rise in HIV cases across the country, and as of November 2021 at least a quarter of monthly patients admitted to the nation’s only psychiatric hospital were victims of substance abuse.
All of this has contributed to a crisis that Kuliniasi Tukutukuwaqa, former intelligence manager at Fiji’s Ministry of Defence and National Security, described at the Pacific Regional Law Enforcement Conference (PRLEC) in Suva last month as a “blooming plague.”
The pandemic has only made things worse. More than a dozen people VICE World News spoke to in Fiji attested to the fact that times are tough, and many desperately poor individuals are taking up criminal activity just to feed themselves and their families.
“Over here it's really hard now,” said the taxi driver, who wished to be identified only by his first name, Josh, for his protection. “The cost of living is right up and the wages are really low.” So much so that he’s started hustling as a go-between for the dealers, he admits, bringing in clients and pocketing a small commission. “I need money too,” he said. “It helps. It’s a little bit of money on top for the bread.”
Others are turning to pickpocketing, burglaries, and sex work to make ends meet, according to Josh. But at $400 a gram, nothing pays quite like meth. And as its influence grows, the drug trade is sucking even more people into its vortex.
“It’s getting wild now,” said Josh. “I read my Bible, and it says that we are living in the last days. The way I look at it, there's no solution, to be honest. The crime, and all these bad things happening, it’s going to keep on rising.”
“I feel really bad about it. It’s spoiling the life of people over here, ice.”
Rain was misting down on Suva Harbour, the biggest port in Fiji, as Naomi sat and watched the shipping freighters lumber in to offload cargo from around the world: clothing and electronics and non-perishable foodstuffs. On some days, almost definitely drugs.
She was only 19, she explained, when she learned how to shoot meth intravenously. Her friend diluted a spoonful of ice shards, pulled the liquid into a syringe, slid the tip of the needle into her arm, and injected.
Until that day in 2019, Naomi—who comes from what she described as a “good, healthy family,” and requested anonymity out of fear for her safety—hadn’t consumed any drug more potent than alcohol. A year later, she was melting down a two-ounce rock of ice and shooting it all within a 24-hour period, a dose that kept her awake for four days straight.
Like a growing number of young Fijians, the 22-year-old former sex worker’s relationship with meth rapidly developed until she was using it multiple times a day, every day.
“Before we had to do our work with men, we’d use the drugs first to make us feel into it,” Naomi said. “The more you're into it, the [more] money comes in.” But if the aphrodisiac effects of meth made it easier to have transactional sex with strangers, those transactions also made it easier to get drugs. While her day-to-day clientele ranged from businessmen to church pastors and government ministers, Naomi said the majority were meth dealers.
“The drug lords: They were the clients we mostly came across,” she pointed out, revealing how eventually she started sleeping with them just so she could score. “They’d give you money, [and] they would pay you in drugs and give you free drugs.”
Sex workers are among the most at-risk groups for substance misuse in Fiji. But the country’s growing meth scourge also appears to be driving more young people onto the streets in the first place, entering the sex trade in order to finance their habit. As Tukutukuwaqa declared to the PRLEC last month, “Our youths have resorted to a life of crime and prostitution to satisfy their growing appetite for these drugs.”
Sesenieli Naitala, who runs a safe house for sex workers in the heart of Suva, said that the past two years have seen a noticeable increase in the number of young people coming into her shelter with substance abuse problems, as well as a decrease in their average age.
“We started here in 2013, and we’d see two [underage girls] a month coming in. Now it can be seven or eight coming in a day,” she told VICE World News. “[The clients] lure the young ones to get involved and take drugs… and I can see it: They’re addicted. It’s very sad. You see them going up and down [the street], they never sleep for two or three days, they don’t change themselves, don't bathe.”
“You can't just go to a needle exchange in the Pacific, so needles will be shared, [and] you're going to have a spread of HIV and AIDS… The Pacific is not ready for the tsunami that'll come healthwise related to this.”
Naomi, who has now quit sex work and been sober for a year, said she’s seen it too. Within the space of six weeks, while doing community outreach through her church, she estimated that she met half a dozen sex workers around the ages of 13 and 14.
“Every time we come up in the street, they'll be high,” she said. “I can tell by their hands that they've injected.”
Within the past few years, intravenous meth use has become the most popular way to ingest the drug in Fiji. That’s worrying for a number of reasons, not least of which is the tendency for some users to share needles, risking the contraction of blood-borne infections, like HIV.
“You can't just go to a needle exchange in the Pacific, so needles will be shared, [and] you're going to have a spread of HIV and AIDS,” José Sousa-Santos told VICE World News. He is a senior fellow at the Australian Pacific Security College and the author of a February report looking at the impacts of transpacific drug trafficking. “The Pacific is not ready for the tsunami that'll come healthwise related to this.”
That tsunami is already cresting. In 2021 Fiji’s Health Ministry reported 151 new cases of HIV, the highest annual number ever recorded in the country, with intravenous drug use and needle-sharing cited as an emerging factor. Eighty-two percent of those cases were aged 20 to 49, 6 percent were adolescents, and another 6 percent were less than 10 years old—most likely the result of mother-to-child transmissions. Such figures put Fiji among the top five countries in the Asia-Pacific region for rising new HIV infections among 15- to 24-year-olds, and ahead of all other Pacific Island nations. A July report by UNAIDS put it in a pool of 38 countries with alarming climbing infection rates.
Underpinning the growth of these social ills in Fiji are the compounding factors of unemployment and financial hardship amid the fallout of COVID-19. Even before the pandemic, nearly a quarter of Fiji’s population of 900,000 lived in poverty. But during 2020, as travel restrictions and border closures plunged international tourism into a state of deep freeze, the country’s economy went into freefall. The World Bank found that in that year, Fiji’s service- and tourism-based economy suffered one of the world’s worst downturns, and the most severe in the country’s history, contracting by 19 percent.
Sousa-Santos confirmed that these financial stressors exacerbated the drug problem during lockdown, as “a lot of people lost their jobs, and that made them easy targets for criminal syndicates.”
“What we've seen over the past few years is the growth of a very strong regional drug market,” he told VICE World News. “[This] has caused a growth of criminality, prostitution, child exploitation, human trafficking, corruption, infiltration of the police forces, and infiltration of other government agencies [in Fiji].”
“The thing that worries a lot of people most,” he continued, “is that there is nothing in place in regards to drug rehabilitation.”
At August’s PRLEC meeting, Fiji’s acting defence minister, Jone Usamate, similarly declared that widespread unemployment, high cost of living, and a lack of health resources over the past two years had become “push factors” for Fijians to join criminal networks. It was this shift, this growing recruitment of local facilitators, producers, distributors, and dealers, that he lamented as “perhaps the greatest downside” to Fiji’s spiralling meth crisis.
“Whilst there might be foreign masterminds involved,” he said, “it is our own people that are directly involved in the illicit movement of drugs and narcotics in our streets, in our schools, and our communities.”
Positioned as it is along one of the world’s most lucrative drug corridors, transnational criminal syndicates have long viewed Fiji as one link in a gilded chain. Australia—whose drug market alone is worth more than $7 billion USD—and New Zealand are the real cash cows of the region, with authorities reporting that methamphetamine and cocaine usage reached record levels in both countries in mid-2020.
For decades, the vast and porous archipelago of the Pacific Islands merely served as a stop-off along this narcotics highway: an ideal trans-shipment point for cocaine and methamphetamine traffickers. Over time, though, Fiji has become a market unto itself. While local demand for cocaine is vanishingly small, Fijians have become involved at all levels of importation, facilitation, manufacture, sales, and trafficking—not to mention consumption—of meth.
As Jeremy Douglas, regional representative for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in Southeast Asia and the Pacific, told VICE World News: “No place stays a transit zone.”
“It seems that every year it just gets worse,” Douglas said of Fiji’s meth situation. “The region is increasingly connected to other parts of the world… If traffickers can make a lot of money in a market like Fiji because they're buying low in Southeast Asia or in Latin America and selling high, they will do it.”
The exact moment at which the first ice crystals entered the bloodstream of the local market is hard to pinpoint, but multiple people within the scene claim it stems from the controversial deportation programs of countries like Australia, New Zealand, and the U.S., which over the past 20 years have sent thousands of convicted criminals back to their countries of citizenship in the South Pacific. Between 2004 and 2020, more than 3,500 Pacific nationals were deported from these countries, mostly for drug-related offences. At least 450 of them were sent to Fiji.
Often these deportees were parachuted back into the region without any support, safety net, or financial prospects beyond their black-market street savvy and pre-established connections to criminal networks. Neil Boister, an academic criminal lawyer and an expert in transnational criminal law at New Zealand’s University of Canterbury, told VICE World News that “all indications suggest it's been a very bad influence.”
“It's had a very poor impact,” he said. “Not in every case, but it's certainly opened up a whole range of organised criminal groups which didn't exist.”
Joseph, a Fiji-born meth user who has his own drug trafficking connections in Australia, said he watched it happen.
“Ice got introduced to Fiji through the American deportees,” he told VICE World News. “In the early 2000s they started getting deported from America [to Fiji], and because of their connections and stuff like that, it started getting smuggled into Fiji from America.”
Joseph requested anonymity out of fear the authorities would “make his life hell” for speaking to the media. “I know the American deportees,” he continued. “They've got the connections… They are the pioneers who actually put ice on the street in Fiji.”
“If it wasn't for the consumption of cocaine or meth in both Australia and New Zealand, then this just wouldn't exist… Someone gives you cocaine at a party, and you say, ‘Oh I'll have some, what a great time’. It has consequences.”
These deportation policies have drawn condemnation from Pacific Islands officials, who accuse the U.S., Australia, and New Zealand of “exporting their problems” to the region. Sousa-Santos stressed that the policies were in need of “urgent review,” and noted that while every country has the legal right to deport foreign criminals, Australia, New Zealand, and the U.S. also have a duty of care toward the Pacific.
Boister also pointed out, however, that it isn’t just what Australia and New Zealand are pushing out to the Pacific that’s fuelling the region’s drug crisis; it’s also what they are bringing in and consuming, at a scale larger than almost any other country in the developed world.
“If it wasn't for the consumption of cocaine or meth in both Australia and New Zealand, then this just wouldn't exist,” said Boister. “The users are not taking responsibility… They have started the whole thing rolling—someone gives you cocaine at a party, and you say, ‘Oh I'll have some, what a great time’. It has consequences.”
Today, those within Fiji's drug scene claim the deportees have become relatively small-time players. But the genie’s already out of the bottle: Meth has penetrated every stratum of Fijian society, and the market is thriving. In the words of one official from Tonga: “The deportees started the fire, but now the fire is out of control.”
On the street level, at least, it’s now the locals who keep things burning. People like the dealer in the backseat of the taxi cab, or Tui, a recently-retired, Suva-based drug distributor who after 15 years of dealing just cannabis, shifted about five years ago to meth.
You wouldn’t guess at a glance that Tui was, until recently, one of the biggest meth distributors in the capital. He’s short and lean and spoke in a barely perceptible whisper as he explained how he’d be allocated bulk, two- to three-kilo packages of the drug, which he would then break down and distribute to as many as 12 different dealers across Suva. Ice was a “big moneymaker.” But its arrival in Fiji, he said, changed the country for the worse.
“Before the deportees were doing their thing… nobody knew what meth was. It was only green,” he told VICE World News. “Now there is too much white [meth]… Any place you need it, any street you go, you’re gonna find it.”
Tui spoke on condition of anonymity, claiming he and his family could be in grave danger if anyone inside the trade found out he was talking. He couldn’t say much, he explained, but most of Fiji’s meth comes by sea or air from places like China, Colombia, and, for the “good, A-grade stuff,” Mexico. The drugs always enter the Pacific trade routes via Tonga, he said, and in many cases they are destined for more lucrative shores.
Tui’s experience is backed up by the secretariat for the Pacific Islands Chiefs of Police, a regional law enforcement body, who told VICE World News that groups operating from the Americas, Asia, and Australia and New Zealand “exert the greatest influence.”
“Having said that, trade is now wholly global, and it would be unwise to discount influences from Africa and Europe in the Pacific too,” they added, calling organised crime a “serious threat to the Pacific way of life.”
“The sheer size of the region, with its porous borders and areas of high seas, makes surveillance and detection of [criminal] entities and the movement of goods and people challenging.”
But while historically the big players have been transnational syndicates, recent years have also seen the emergence of what Sousa-Santos calls “indigenous regional gangs”—local criminals who run things from within the Pacific Islands and cater to the domestic market.
For the transnationals, Fiji and other Pacific Island nations are still often regarded as little more than funnels into higher-paying markets. For smaller regional crime groups, though, Fiji has become a lucrative destination in its own right—as well as a sinkhole for any substances deemed too low-grade to sell to more discerning customers in the antipodes, according to Tui.
“Fiji’s a dump place,” he said. “If something’s fucked up—the taste is not good, or the high is not good, or there’s something bad with the chemicals—anything fucked up, they’re gonna shift it to Fiji... If they make it and they spoil it, they try it on [Fijians] first.”
“People are hungry here.”
In recent years, such hunger has driven people in Fiji to start manufacturing their own product. Meth labs have been cropping up in homes, warehouses, and nightclubs around Suva and Nadi, Fiji’s third largest city, as amateur cooks turn their hand to feeding the domestic market. The majority of Fijian users who can’t afford the premium white are often left with no safer option than this second-rate, locally manufactured ice—or, in some cases, a fake substitute like flakka, crushed candy, or salt.
“When [meth] first came, it was very good, very expensive, A-grade stuff. Now there’s too much, [and it’s too] fake,” Tui said. “[Fijians] cook here and don’t know how to cook it. They don’t have the proper stuff—the chemicals, the oven to bake it—and the people that are smoking it get fucked.”
It’s for this reason that Tui opted out of Fiji’s meth trade: He’s seen what the drug is doing to his own community. Joseph, too, refuses to sell here, although he admits it’d be easy to set up an import operation with connections back in Australia. The fire is already well and truly out of hand. Quantity’s going up, quality’s going down, and the emergence of a local market has led to a rise in violent, small-scale turf wars between local gangs.
Joseph doesn’t want to fan the flames.
“For a small country, a Third World country like this, we just did not need this on the street,” he said. “Ice has become very, very prevalent in Fiji. It's just so common now. And it doesn't discriminate: It doesn't look at whether you're rich, poor, or fucking crippled. Once you're on it, you're on it.”
“Ice is king.”
Spend enough time talking to people in and around Fiji’s meth scene and you’ll get a sense for how insidious its influence has become—and the lengths its beneficiaries will go to protect it. Just ask Kalesi Volatabu, founder and director of nonprofit advocacy group Drug Free World Fiji, one of the country’s few NGOs working on the issue.
The group uses anti-drug materials produced by the Church of Scientology, but Volatabu says she and other Fijian anti-drug advocates have little choice but to source from the highly controversial religious group due to a lack of resources in the country. She adds that the arrangement is the only connection the group has with the Church. But despite these limitations, Volatabu’s public advocacy work has proved effective at stoking nationwide drug awareness, so much so that she says she received a death threat from a Mexican cartel.
“They have someone that comes into the country every so often that was like, ‘You need to shut up, you need to stop going in front of the TV and talking about things. If not, it's you and your family,’” she said. “I literally needed to plan an escape from my home.”
Given the sheer black-market value of the transpacific drug highway, it’s unsurprising that traffickers and cartels might get leery about people drawing attention to their activities. But as the scene grows and becomes more deeply entrenched at all levels of society, insiders claim some of the nation’s most powerful people are also getting in on the trade.
“There’s plenty of big businessmen involved here… politicians and stuff. Without them, this thing [meth] can’t come here,” said Tui. “I can’t say names… but I know of them.”
VICE World News spoke to at least half a dozen people with various connections to the drug scene who suggested the same thing: that narco-corruption has infiltrated some of Fiji’s highest institutions, and that without the complicity of those in positions of power, the multibillion-dollar meth trade wouldn’t be able to function as it does.
“If action is not taken immediately, and appropriately, then what we are looking at over the next several years is some Pacific Island countries becoming semi-narco states.”
In his February report, Sousa-Santos noted that narco-corruption in the Pacific has undermined the rule of law and compromised individuals across a number of key agencies, including customs, police, and immigration. A worrying potential outcome of that is what he described to VICE World News as a “shadow power structure,” where drug bosses and syndicates have more money and influence than traditional institutions and are thus able to exert their dominion over the people.
“If action is not taken immediately, and appropriately, then what we are looking at over the next several years is some Pacific Island countries becoming semi-narco states… areas which are under the control of these indigenous criminal syndicates,” he said. “That's catastrophic, because then how do you address that?”
“It’s not just a criminal issue. It's a threat to national security.”
The chain of command gets murkier the higher one climbs, with those directly involved apparently too afraid to name names or speak openly about organisational structure. But there are those on the periphery of the trade who have gained insight into how things work at the higher levels—and who’s taking part.
Naomi, for one, was given access to the upper echelons of Fiji’s meth trade through her drug-dealer clients—those who import and disseminate the goods that eventually trickle down to street-level distributors like Tui. Most notable among them: a foreign national kingpin who lives in Nadi and facilitates the influx of ice into the country.
“Normally [the meth comes] from Mexico, or from America, but we were all getting the source from this guy,” said Naomi. “He’s like mafia. Big boss.”
On multiple occasions, she was present when dealers traveled to the port city of Nadi to meet the kingpin. “It's just like the movies,” Naomi recalled. “I could see in front of my face these rocks, like shining crystal, on top of the table.”
Eleanor, whom VICE has chosen to anonymise for her own safety, is a young mother living in the outskirts of Suva, married to one of the runners who regularly traveled to Nadi to “pick up the parcels” of meth being imported into Fiji. She separated from him in mid-2021, but she described her estranged husband as having been “one of the very trusted dealers to supply to the key people.”
Over the course of three years, she watched him pick up and drop off bulk quantities of methamphetamine to customers across the country, accompanied him to a number of business dinners, and heard the names of multiple people allegedly involved in the drug trade, which she claimed include some of Fiji’s most high-ranking politicians, as well as members of the justice system and the social elite.
“They are enabling and also allowing for these things to happen,” she said. “Some of it gets smuggled in, some of it gets processed, but they [the smugglers] are all protected.”
“Everything is compromised in our system right now in terms of transporting drugs.”
Both expert and anecdotal reports suggest that meth enters Fiji via sea, air, and, to some extent, post. Joseph said he knows an American deportee who pays a customs official to clear his consignment of meth every three to four months. And while it’s impossible to know exactly how much is being imported at any given time, the rampant availability of the drug on the streets indicates that the volume entering the country far outweighs that which is stopped and seized.
“Sometimes it gets caught, but that’s all part of the plan,” said Tui. “Something must get caught. Not all of it can come in.”
The suspected involvement of officials allows this industry to prosper, not only through facilitation but also by eroding public trust in authorities and law enforcement.
“Corruption is at all different levels of society—from the commercial sector to money laundering to drug importation and usage,” Sousa-Santos said. “This is something that normally is not talked about openly, but it is something that needs to be addressed.”
Of all the various arms of Fiji’s public and private sectors accused of involvement or complicity in the drug trade, the police were named most often by those VICE World News spoke to on the ground. Even Volatabu, who worked closely alongside the Fiji police force as a drug policy consultant, eventually lost faith in their integrity.
“In some respects I was seen as a threat by police, because I was bold enough to talk about [the drug problem] openly,” she said. “I walk away from it now and I recognize that some of the leaders were compromised. So for them to back [drug policy] fully was like going against the grain.”
In August, Police Commissioner Sitiveni Qiliho publicly admitted that “there are rogue officers within the force [who] are being dealt with,” amid reports of police officers taking confiscated drugs and selling them back on the black market. For Volatabu, the risk that someone on the inside might leak or tamper with sensitive information was enough to give her pause.
“To tell you the truth, when I used to get the intel, I wouldn't go to the police,” she said. “Even the commissioner, I told him: ‘I do not trust anyone in the blues. So how can you guarantee the community safety when even the people don't trust you?’”
VICE World News made numerous attempts to reach a representative from Fiji Police’s narcotics bureau and the government for comment but did not receive a response.
Hampering law enforcement is a severe lack of data on Fiji’s drug culture, with both Douglas and Sousa-Santos noting that little to no research has been done. “I don’t really think that Fiji would want that kind of information to go out,” Sousa-Santos said. “It really blows the ‘perfect tourist destination’ branding out of the water.”
Some have suggested that the rot is so deep, and the corruption so widespread, that only a full root-and-branch approach will effectively weed out the issue. According to Volatabu, the system is in need of a complete overhaul.
“The government doesn't see drugs as a problem,” she said. “We're losing our people to these poisons, and it shouldn't be that way. Fiji was well known for the way the world should be, because it's paradise—but not when it's being distorted by these poisons.”
That paradise is not quite lost. By global standards, Fiji’s drug trade is still in its early stages, and law enforcement and security bodies insist it’s not too late to intervene. There is also consensus, however, that the crisis is worse than it’s ever been, and that if authorities are going to meaningfully disrupt the “blooming plague” of meth, then they need to act soon.
Keeping the traffickers out of Fiji is one thing; dealing with the repercussions is another. Pandora's box is already open, says Sousa-Santos, and the problems it unleashed are growing by the day. If serious intervention doesn’t significantly shift Fiji’s current trajectory, he fears the country’s drug crisis could soon deteriorate to a point of no return.
“The impacts on society will be catastrophic,” he said. “Fiji is losing this war.”
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