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A methamphetamine epidemic is ravaging the Kingdom of Tonga and authorities are struggling to cope with the drug's destructive effects.
In the Pacific nation with a population of 109,008 the highly-addictive drug known in New Zealand as P has penetrated all levels of society, officials tell 1 NEWS.
Ninety-six arrests have been made in the past six months by a special taskforce set up to deal with the problem.
Also, up to 70 per cent of all mental health patients are addicts.
In a special investigation, 1 NEWS gained exclusive access to one of Tonga's five major drug syndicates.
On a quiet street, two meth houses stand just 30 metres apart. This isn't unusual. Ice, or tutu as it’s known locally, is everywhere.
“This country is hooked on drugs, there's no doubt about that,” Dr Mapa Puloka, who works with addicts, said.
Methamphetamine is sweeping through villages, destroying families and communities.
“We are not prepared well to face this tsunami,” Sila Siufanga of the Salvation Army Tonga said.
1 NEWS has been given an inside track on how one of five major meth syndicates on the island of Tongatapu operates.
The group, which distributes to dealers in seven villages as well as individuals, imports kilos of methamphetamine from Sydney.
“There are people in government that brings the thing over and I just distribute to the village. Our stuff comes in containers. The people there operating, they know and they let it out,” a syndicate member said.
It sells for four-to-six-hundred Tongan pa'anga for a gram - that's $NZ300 to $NZ400 (US$206 – US$275).
Most of the dealers are armed.
Some of the weapons come from America and also the Chinese people. They bring them in from China mixed in with imported goods," the syndicate member said.
While the better quality meth is imported, small labs are springing up around the island.
“A lot of little labs are making their own version of it. But it's not actually the right ingredients, so they mix it up and deal it to villages,” the syndicate member said.
Most of the small and mid-level dealers in Tonga are also users.
1 NEWS is told those involved can be found in every level of society.
That's echoed by Dr Mapa Puloka who works with addicts.
“In some church, ministers are involved too. In the dealing, trafficking,” he said.
Also involved are civil servants, politicians, traditional leaders, customs, and even the police are not immune.
“We need people with courage, integrity because network of dealing drugs, they have money, they have people and they're very strategic and powerful,” Chief Superintendent Tevita Vailea of the Tonga Drugs Taskforce said.
Since April, the special drugs taskforce set up to deal with the kingdom's meth problem has made 96 arrests, most in the capital Nuku'alofa, with busts made in a number of urban areas.
“I am very worried about it,” Chief Superintendent Vailea said.
Increasing numbers of criminal deportees from Australia and the US helped set up the local drug trade.
“When they arrive at the border of Tonga we are not well resourced, we are not well prepared,” Chief Superintendent Vailea said.
Tonga has long been a major transit point for drugs heading to Australia and New Zealand. Now it's also a destination.
“These syndicates take the opportunity to make money from the local market which they've created. Where there's a weak economy they are seen as easy targets,” Jose Sousa-Santos, Strategika security consultant said.
Even Tonga's children are being targeted.
A woman who didn't want to be identified knows first hand - her loved ones are involved.
“The usage of meth in Tonga is rampant to the point where dealers are encouraging kids to try it because they know that they'll have a client for life,” the woman said.
But it's also done in the clear light of day.
“The police they caught two cars, they were selling drugs just beside the schools,” Sila Siufanga of the Salvation Army Tonga said.
Even cyclone-damaged Fasi Primary School, where New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern donated resources to the school earlier this year, is not exempt.
The pupils at the school are now forbidden from leaving the grounds at lunchtime because the school found out dealers were waiting outside and offering the children small amounts of cash to make meth deliveries in town.
For the small island nation the growing scourge of meth is devastating.
Tonga is now coming to grips with its new title, the Kingdom of Ice.
Pacific Islands News Association
Who & What is PINA?
International News Safety Institute (INSI)
Media Helping Media