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Explosion in number of boats carrying cocaine and meth from Latin America to Australia is causing havoc for islands on the way

It is the drug route youve never heard of: a multibillion-dollar operation involving cocaine and methamphetamines being packed into the hulls of sailing boats in the US and Latin America and transported to Australia via South Pacific islands more often thought of as holiday destinations than narcotics hubs.

In the past five years there has been an explosion in the number of boats, sometimes carrying more than a tonne of cocaine, making the journey across the Pacific Ocean to feed Australias growing and very lucrative drug habit.

A yacht sailing in Fiji waters. Photograph: Rob Rickman/The Guardian

Caught in the middle are countries such as Fiji, which the Guardian visited as part of a series investigating the Pacific drug highway. Other countries affected include Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, Tonga and New Caledonia, whose waters and beaches are being used as storage grounds for billions of dollars worth of illicit drugs.

Hundreds of kilograms of cocaine have washed up on remote Pacific beaches, ships laden with drugs have run aground on far-flung coral reefs, and locals have discovered huge caches of drugs stored in underwater nets attached to GPS beacons.

Draw a direct line between Bogot and Canberra and it goes straight through the islands, says Dr Andreas Schloenhardt, professor of criminal law at the University of Queensland.

The Pacific has been a transit point in the drug route for decades, but law enforcement and security analysts told the Guardian the use of the route appears to have increased dramatically in the past five years. Since 2014, Australian federal police have been involved in the seizure of about 7.5 tonnes of cocaine shipped in small vessels such as yachts through the region and intended for Australia.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jun/24/the-new-drug-highway-pacific-islands-at-centre-of-cocaine-trafficking-boom