Tonga and US workshop on combating drug trafficking in South Pacific

Twenty Tongan and American agencies attended a workshop early this month organised by the Nevada National Guard State Partnership Program to combat drug trafficking, human trafficking, piracy and protection of natural resources.

The five-day meeting “focused on drug identification and included two maritime sessions that spotlighted ship embarkment and evidence discovery”.

Ten Tongan agents and 10 American agents were allowed “to share its latest information surrounding drug identification in an allied effort to combat potential drug trafficking in the South Pacific”.

The participating Tongan agencies included His Majesty’s Armed Forces, Customs, Police and Ministry of Infrastructure officials as well as a representative from the Attorney General’s office; the Joint Interagency Task Force West, U.S. Coast Guard, Defense Attache Office and the Nevada Air and Army Guard were the American participants.

“The multi-agency approach to drug identification is the only way to go,” said Tonga Police deputy commissioner Pelenatita Fe’ao Vaisuai. “No one agency can do it all on its own – it must be a cooperative effort.

“It’s all about building effective working relationships and partnerships as well as sharing and teaching others about new information and experiences.”

Record number of agencies on board for Nevada/Tonga drug identification exchange

According to Tonga Armed Forces Lt. Siosiua Ika, the idea for a drug identification exchange stemmed from a recent incident where Tongan officials discovered a ship that had run aground but they couldn’t easily identify the substances aboard the vessel.

“That was a lesson learned. For (Tonga agencies), drug identification training should continue,” Ika said. “We can’t rely on just a few people from each organization to have the training to identify potential drugs; hopefully it can become continuous and all can receive the training.”

With drug identification the top priority of the exchange, Air Guard 2nd Lt. Lewis Roberts, Tech Sgt. Josh Leggett and Staff Sgt. Berenice Domenzain joined Army Sgt. Lars Nielsen to start the exchange with a topical presentation displaying and describing the effects of common illicit drugs in Nevada. Their presentation took place at His Majesty’s Armed Forces Headquarters near the Royal Palace.

“It was the first time for me to view pictures of the different types of marijuana and understand the different varieties,” said Armed Forces Staff Sgt. Ofa Baasi. “It was a good class; I learned from the Nevada personnel.”

Subsequently, exchange participants learned about the latest in maritime law from U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Kevin Bruen before watching a vessel-boarding demonstration by the Coast Guard’s Law Enforcement Detachment at Masefield Naval Base.

The detachment’s availability coincided perfectly with the port visit of the USS Spruance, which was making the first-ever U.S. warship pier-side stop in Tonga’s capital city. The Coast Guard personnel were aboard the USS Spruance preparing to assist the Navy on a 10-day patrol of international fishing waters.

On the ultimate day of the exchange, Vaisuai gave the participants an update in Tongan about the police department’s drug identification issues before the group headed out to Masefield again to learn about the Tongan Armed Force’s naval assets and resources with a tour aboard Pacific Patrol Boat No. P201 and Landing Vessel No. A401. Those two vessels comprise 50 percent of Tonga’s seafaring ships.

As the exchange concluded, Tongan officials said they were grateful the Nevada Guard facilitated the exchange, noting they had made new contacts domestically as well as internationally.

“Often, Tongan agencies work in isolation,” said James Lutui of the Tonga Attorney General’s office. “It was important to join together and learn about policies and issues cooperatively.”

The success of the exchange was noted by the U.S. Department of State in a message from Judith Cefkin, the U.S. Ambassador to Tonga, Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru and Tuvalu, to the Sailors aboard the USS Spruance.

“The professional military-to-military and community relations events conducted during the Nevada National Guard exchange with the government of Tonga agencies built goodwill toward the United States and served as an important reminder of the U.S. commitment to the region,” she wrote via an electronic message to USS Spruance commanding officer Cmdr. Manuel Hernandez.

The Nevada National Guard’s partnership with Tonga was officially established in April 2014. The State Partnership Program links a state’s National Guard with the armed forces of a partner country in a cooperative, mutually-beneficial relationship.

“The missions succeed because of the hard work of Nevada Guard Soldiers and Airmen,” said Nevada Guard International Affairs Officer Maj. John Brownell, who has made 21 trips to Oceania on behalf of the State Partnership Program in recent years.

The next SPP meeting between the Nevada Guard and His Majesty’s Armed Forces is set for Tonga in August and will emphasize the exchange of search-and-rescue information.

-Original story by Sgt. 1st Class Erick Studenicka

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