Tonga is our closest neighbour, known for its white-sand beaches, friendly, church-going people and brilliant rugby players. But it’s also one of the poorest, most corrupt countries in the Pacific and increasingly the target of organised crime groups. Now there’s a suggestion illegal Tongan passports are being used to smuggle drugs to New Zealand to feed our insatiable methamphetamine habit.
On mornings when the Tongan Parliament sits in Nuku’alofa, a Nissan 4WD swings past the beefy security guard at the front gates and rolls into an allocated park.
The driver, a fat man with glasses wearing traditional garb, chats with fellow members of the legislature until 10am, when he walks inside the white, wooden, church-like building where Tonga’s laws are passed.
That Malakai Fakatoufifita, a noble of the realm known as Lord Tu’ilakepa, can take his seat in the legislative assembly is seen by many as an outrage.
Because when Tu’ilakepa was Speaker of the House in 2010, he allegedly accepted bribes from a Colombian drug boss named Obeil Antonio Zuluaga Gomez.
Gomez wanted to use Tonga as a hub for a global conspiracy to ship hundreds of kilograms of cocaine to Australia and China, according to Australian Federal Police.
Tu’ilakepa had never met Gomez but wrote a letter to the head of the Immigration Department offering to sponsor him so he could get an urgent visa to come to Tonga.
“I can also vouch that [he] is an honest, trustworthy and law abiding person,” Tu’ilakepa wrote in the letter, which is part of Australian court files. In fact, Gomez had done jail time for drug trafficking.
Tu’ilakepa was arrested and charged with conspiring to import drugs and unlawful possession of firearms after guns were found at his properties.
The case dragged on for years before the Attorney General, ‘Aminiasi Kefu, announced he was dropping the drugs charges because of their complexity and because phone taps by Australian police were inadmissible under Tongan law.
Kefu told media it would have taken two months to listen to the phone recordings and a jury would find it difficult to understand and “overbearing” to sit through.
“They may acquit him on that, and all that effort will result in nothing. We are more confident on pursuing the arms charges, which is more…an open and shut case,” Kefu said.
Tu’ilakepa, a father of six, eventually pleaded guilty to the weapons charges and last year was fined just over $6000.
If he’d been sentenced to two years or more imprisonment, he would have been stripped of his noble entitlements – instead he paid the fine and remains a member of the Tongan legislature.
We wanted to ask Tu’ilakepa why he wrote the letter and what right he has to represent the Tongan people, but he avoided us, hiding his face from the photographer.
He then complained in Parliament that we were harassing him. When we finally caught up with him as he left a plantation outside Nuku’alofa, he said he was angry we’d gone to his home and had no comment.
“It’s strange,” admits Tonga’s Prime Minister, ‘Akilisi Pohiva, of Tu’ilakepa’s continued presence in Parliament.
“But the constitution gives the power to the nobles to elect their own representatives. He should not be elected to Parliament for obvious reasons, yet he was.”
And that goes to the heart of Tonga’s problems – it has a Prime Minister who is determined to stamp out corruption and abuse of power but is stymied by a constitution that continues to protect the nobility.
Under the constitution, only 17 of the 26 members of Parliament are appointed by the people, the remainder by nobles.
Ultimate power is held by the King’s advisors on the Privy Council.
“This whole democracy thing is bullshit,” says Mateni Tapueluelu, a people’s representative in the legislature and Pohiva’s son-in-law.
He believes there is a “network of corrupt top people” covering for each other and the “big fish” can’t be touched.
Experts say unless Tonga cleans up its act, it will remain a target for international crime groups, threatening the stability of the region and opening up places like New Zealand and Australia to activities such as drug smuggling, money laundering and people trafficking.
Jeremy Douglas of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime says organised crime is the number one issue facing Pacific law enforcement agencies, as large quantities of meth and cocaine are shipped through the region.
Public officials in the Pacific are poorly paid, he says, and therefore relatively easy to corrupt with “mass volumes of money”.
Grant O’Fee, a New Zealander who served as Tonga’s police commissioner from 2012 to 2014, can understand why civil servants might accept bribes in a country so reliant on foreign aid.
“It’s easy to ride in on your big white horse and say ‘stop taking bribes off motorists’, but if you’re getting paid 5000 paanga a year…look at the condition the poor buggers are living in.”
Intelligence sources say Tonga is at risk because it has an international airport, a unique nobility structure susceptible to corruption, a large Chinese population, and criminal ties to Australia, New Zealand and the US.
That’s the official view, but what’s the word on the street?
A good person to ask is Sione Ngaue, who runs a tattoo parlour in downtown Nuku’alofa.
A former member of the notorious west Los Angeles street gang the Raymond Avenue Crips, Ngaue was deported to his birthplace of Tonga in 2008 after serving 14 years jail-time for manslaughter.
His body is covered in scars from gunshot and knife wounds inflicted during gang wars.
Ngaue had a hard time transitioning to life in Tonga, the homeland he left when he was just four. Deportees carry a lot of the blame for Tonga’s growing crime problem, he says.
Ngaue used to work for his “big time drug dealer” brother in LA, and says if he hadn’t turned his life around, he could easily go back to that lifestyle.
“If I was gonna import drugs to Tonga I think I would either fly it through in a small plane, coming from Samoa or somewhere like that, and drop it off and have the little boats pick it up.
“It’s so easy in Tonga because the Government is so corrupt. It’s easy to pay off [officials] and they turn their back.
“We’re Tongan nationals but we’re really Americans, that connection never breaks, it’s so easy for my deportee brothers and sisters to make a phone call…we still have a lot of family and friends and homeboys who are in the gangs there who will support us.”
Upon his return to Tonga, Ngaue was surprised to see so many Chinese. They now make up about four percent of the population, or 4000 people, and China has increasingly been throwing money around – including a $140m loan to rebuild Nuku’alofa after the 2006 riots.
Ngaue believes Chinese-Tongans are behind a lot of the meth, or “ice” shipments coming into the country.
“I don’t see the cocaine here in Tonga like I see the ice. A lot of kids are getting involved, which is a bad thing – it’s very expensive here.”
Dr Pulaka Mapa knows about the fallout from drugs on Tonga’s young people.
We found him addressing a small crowd in a market square about mental health issues.
Mapa says about 60 per cent of psychiatric admissions to Tonga’s main hospital are drug-related.
“It’s getting worse because we can’t … do much about the supply of it.
“Deportees contact their friends overseas and they send it here. I was told the Chinese are also involved.
“Go to the nightclubs. They are sniffing it in the toilets.”
To understand more about Tonga’s connection to international drug syndicates, we spoke to Alamoni Liava’a, the former captain of the Tongan rugby team who became a cocaine smuggler in the 1990s, bringing millions of dollars worth of the drug to New Zealand inside yams.
We tracked Liava’a down to a hut on the remote western tip of Tongatapu, where he lives like a hermit in the bush.
Initially he only wanted to talk about rugby, but soon opened up about his drug-dealing past, sharing secrets he’d never before divulged.
Liava’a revealed that his Colombian cocaine was shipped from San Francisco to Hawaii to Tonga before the final journey to New Zealand, and that his contact was the notorious Hawaii-based Tongan drug boss Richard “Tiki” Taumoepeau.
Taumoepeau was responsible for a lot of the cocaine that flooded the Pacific, including New Zealand, in the late 90s. He was arrested in 1999 and is serving a 40-year sentence in a US jail.
“He was our guy, don’t tell the police that,” Liava’a chuckles.
He was just starting to hit the big-time, he says, when he was caught.
“The American [authorities] didn’t worry about it because we were only doing suitcases, they were worrying about the guys with the containers. But we were starting to spread – we were going to Japan, Guam, Sydney, Fiji, Samoa.”
In more recent times, Tongans have been cropping up in large methamphetamine operations.