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Two boats floating next to each other

Fishing for criminals

The Pacific Transnational Crime Network is expanding and strengthening its response to criminal syndicates.

By Graham McBean

The Royal Solomon Island Police Force Vessel (RSIPV) Auki deployed from Honiara on March 23. The message was as simple as it was sparse. Four 'blue boats' had been sighted within Solomon Islands territorial waters.

The Auki was to intercept, secure and bring the boats to port. On board were officers from the Honiara Transnational Crime Unit, AFP Participating Police Force advisors and fisheries officers.

By Friday March 24 the Auki sighted the four boats within the middle of the Indispensable Reefs, south of Rennell-Bellona Province, Solomon Islands, about 360 kilometres from Honiara.

Following the sighting of the boats and the refusal by the suspect boats to comply with enforcement orders, a second maritime asset, the RSIPV Lata was deployed on Saturday 25 March.

Three of the boats were apprehended over the course of the weekend, while the fourth avoided law enforcement. A total of 43 males, all suspected to be of Vietnamese origin, were delivered into police custody on-board both RSIPF vessels.

Three fishing boats next to a dock
Royal Solomon Islands Police Force officers apprehended three illegal fishing vessels.
A man and a police officer on a boat
One of the Vietnamese 'blue boats' is brought into harbour at Honiara.

Pacific Transnational Crime Network

Illegal fishing in the Pacific region is a problem. In fact, the August 2016 Pacific Criminal Environmental Scan highlighted "protection of fisheries from criminal exploitation and corrupt activities" as one of the region's most significant challenges.

But illegal fishing is just one of many crime types within the region, which is being targeted by transnational crime syndicates. The Pacific's porous borders make it vulnerable to transnational criminal syndicates using countries as transit hubs.

Drugs and precursor trafficking; trafficking in people and smuggling of immigrants; environmental crimes and small-arms trafficking were named by the United Nation's September 2016 Transnational Organised Crime in the Pacific Threat Assessment as major concerns.

The vulnerable conditions are compounded by limited law enforcement capacity and capability, weak legislation and corruption built into cultural expectations and extended through opportunity.

In addition to the major four types of transnational crime, the report also includes some information on the trafficking of counterfeit goods, including fraudulent medicines, and cybercrime as emerging threats in the region.

A police officer picking up black packages
The fluid expanses of the Pacific Ocean make it perfect to ship illegal contraband. Operation Blasco in 2013 seized 750kgs of cocaine in Vanuatu.

A major response to emerging criminality is the growing strength of the Pacific Transnational Crime Network (PTCN), with the Pacific Transnational Crime Coordination Centre (PTCCC) positioned in Apia, Samoa.

A boat washed up on a reef
The JaReVe washed up on a tiny Tongan island with a corpse and 200kgs on cocaine in 2012.

Kate Brookes, Team Leader for the PTCN Team from 2010 to June 2017, says the network is a win for Australia and a win for the Pacific.

"It's a unique people-to-people network," Ms Brookes says. "There is no other network like it.

"Instead of each agency trying to cooperate bilaterally or multi-laterally, they have a centre that they send information and intelligence to that can be collated and see these patterns emerging and see what transnational crime is happening."


The PTCN was established after Operation Logrunner in 2000. Pacific nations knew that transnational crime syndicates were traversing through the region. But each individual nation had other priorities for their limited resources.

That all changed with Logrunner. About 357 kilograms of heroin was seized in Suva, Fiji, in October 2000. Previously, it was considered that drug syndicates traversed through the Pacific on their way to more lucrative destinations like Australia and New Zealand.

While the AFP had considered for some time that transnational crime syndicates were using Pacific nations to stockpile and distribute drugs – Logrunner was proof, and in a farmhouse just outside the nation's capital.

Stockpiling drugs brings its own unique problems. People have to be bought off, inspiring corruption. Legitimate 'front' businesses were established and later used by the syndicates. International smuggling methodologies can be turned to any use.

Indeed, the criminal syndicate targeted in the Logrunner investigation was involved with people smuggling, fraud and counterfeiting and worked across three continents.

Ms Brookes says that Logrunner highlighted that there was no coordinated response to transnational crime within the region.

The AFP reached out to Pacific islands and it was clear that countries were talking a "different language" about transnational crime.

"The success is not only about the operational outcomes but the support to Pacific nations with legislation and capacity building. There is also the cooperation and information sharing that comes with having a coordinated network."

A large group of people cutting a cake together
The Pacific Transnational Crime Network celebrates 15 years with Fiji Police Force, Fiji Customs and Revenue and AFP.

So in July 2002 the PTCN was created in Suva. The AFP supports the PTCN as part of the whole-of-government response. But Ms Brookes says it is Pacific driven and countries are working together with the realisation that a coordinated regional response is imperative to tackling transnational crime.

The growing success of the PTCN is impressive. In September 2016, the PTCN's Transnational Crime Unit (TCU) in Pago Pago, American Samoa played in integral role in apprehending a US national facing murder charges who escaped from custody in Tonga and fled in his personal small craft.

Tonga TCU immediately notified the PTCCC, resulting in extensive alerts being generated and disseminated throughout the PTCN in an attempt to locate the small craft.

On 4 October 2016, the fugitive was identified by American Samoa border agencies after his arrival into Pago Pago Harbour. The Pago Pago TCU and PTCCC were notified, resulting in extensive liaison with the respective American Samoa and Tonga Attorney General's Departments to commence proceedings for a provisional arrest warrant.

Later that afternoon, the fugitive was taken into custody without incident by the American Samoa Department of Public Safety. On 5 October, he was remanded in custody and subsequently transferred to Hawaii, awaiting extradition back to Tonga.


The growing awareness of the PTCN continues to propel its expansion. Since 2002, the PTCN has grown from Suva and now includes 17 of the 19 Pacific Island Chiefs of Police nations. But Ms Brookes says the network took off slowly.

"That allowed time for consolidation," she says. "We wanted to build a capacity in the Pacific but we didn't want to build it if it wasn't necessary."

The growth of the PTCN then took on an evolution of its own. As one area established a TCU, then transnational crime targeted other areas that were more vulnerable."

"When I started in 2010 there were nine TCUs – so it was growing slowly. And there was a lot of focus on the coordination centre. We wanted to support the Pacific so we expanded into the smaller countries because of their vulnerability.

Ms Brookes says a large part of the success is that the PTCN is a true collaboration between the AFP and the member Pacific nations. While the network is wholly funded by the AFP, there is a large commitment by Pacific nations scarce in resources, equipment and people.

A man standing at a lecturn speaking
Growth: Current Pacific Transnational Crime Network (PTCN) chair Commissioner Egon Keil, Samoa Police Service, opens the Transnational Crime Unit Team Leaders Conference in Cairns in May 2017.

This is not just police forces but also relates to agencies such as Customs, Immigration and the Forum Fisheries Agency. Ms Brookes says everyone has their own way of working and to coordinate the effort is a challenge.

"It is all about partnership and collaboration," Ms Brookes says. "Resources are so scarce across the Pacific. We need to make sure we work with all of our partners – not just the police."

"We need to make sure we work with our Attorney General and their Attorneys General to make sure that we are working to update legislation".

Technology expansion is also taking off across the Pacific. Closely aligned, legislation is not keeping up with the pace of change.

The issue with legislation across the Pacific is that, in many countries, their legislation has no provision for new and emerging crime types that are legislated in Australia and New Zealand for example. This often means that prosecution is not possible. The AFP works closely with the AGD's International area to regularly review and assist in updating of legislation in Pacific countries.

Ms Brookes says there is recognition that the PTCN is an important part of Australia's crime fighting capability. There is a continuing focus on the Pacific as our closest neighbour. That the PTCN is a true collaboration is an important part of that success.

"What drives a whole-of-government effort in the Pacific is that these are our closest law enforcement partners. They are in between us and a lot of the threats coming our way. If we can fight crime before it gets to our shores and build that strength in the region then we will only be stronger."

Current status

The PTCN marks its 15th year of operation in 2017. The PTCN is an AFP-supported, Pacific-led initiative that provides proactive criminal intelligence and investigative capability to combat transnational and serious organised crime in the Pacific.

The PTCN consists of the PTCCC in Samoa and 25 locally staffed Transnational Crime Units (TCUs) established in 17 Pacific Island countries. The PTCCC performs the role of managing, enhancing and disseminating law enforcement intelligence provided by the PTCN and other law enforcement partners.

The PTCN is supported by the placement of an AFP advisor to the PTCCC in Samoa and AFP advisors with the Honiara and Suva TCUs in Solomon Islands and Fiji respectively. The AFP Senior Liaison Officers in Suva and Port Moresby provide additional support to TCUs in the region.

The Pacific Transnational Crime Team in Canberra provides further support to these efforts with a team of five members working in the Pacific Operations and Territories area under the control of AFP Manager Pacific.

The PTCN motto of "Working together as one for a safer Pacific" is reinforced through the continuing operational successes that have resulted from the sharing of intelligence and information through the PTCCC and the TCUs.

Pacific Transnational Crime Network logo
Pacific Transnational Crime Network logo.

The PTCN logo represents four key elements of the Pacific. The first is the Pacific Ocean. The second is the Kingfisher bird which is endemic to the Pacific and is known to call out a warning when there is danger. The drum calls the community together and the palm tree represents resilience.

PTCCC logo

The Pacific Island Chiefs of Police annual conference in September 2016 discussed raising the profile of the PTCN and the PTCCC. To complement this, the PTCCC commissioned a Samoan designer to produce an updated style for the PTCN including a logo for the PTCCC. This updated design provides a consistent and identifiable style across the PTCN and will assist in the promotion of the work of the PTCN. This is timely as 2017 marks the 15th year of operation for the PTCN.

Pacific Transnational Crime Coordination Centre logo

The shield shape of the logo refers to defence and protection. The shield is divided into four parts: the wave depicts Pacific region, the sun is the symbol of peace and clear skies above the region. An eye represents intelligence and that this organisation is watching over the region and peace in it. The bottom right part of the logo is based on a Samoan tatau symbol and depicts people/agencies working together and forming a network.