Presence of Organised Crime in Timor Confirmed by Recent Drug Arrests

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Over the past few days most major news sources have paraded the success of the security sector in Timor-Leste, and particularly the PNTL, in apprehending and arresting three suspects for the importation of illegal narcotics.

To briefly recap the circumstances of the case as currently reported:
• Three individuals have been arrested for the importation of 1.595 kilos of the narcotic, ‘Shabu-Shabu’, into Timor-Leste.
• The substance was uncovered in a parcel from Hong-Kong.
• Of the three suspects apprehended, two are not Timorese citizens.
• The narcotic was bound for drug markets in Indonesia.

Time to celebrate? Certainly from one perspective this story can be seen as a raging success for the security sector and PNTL, which reportedly acted with both authority and decisiveness to ensnare the suspected criminals. However, whilst congratulating the relevant authorities in this case FM can’t help but lament the broader implications of this story in regards to the presence of organised crime in Timor-Leste.

Since 2010, FM has continually warned of the presence of organised crime in Timor, and of the threat of an explosion in organised crime should the inherent vulnerabilities within the country not be addressed head-on. As is evidenced by this case, in which a multi-national criminal group planned a drug operation across a number of countries, FM’s concerns have been validated and organised crime is indeed developing in both scope and sophistication within our nation.

By its very nature organised crime is insidious and opportunistic; it seeks to exploit soft points in the political, economic, security and social structures created within and between nations for economic gain. That reports indicate that the narcotics were ultimately bound for Indonesia illustrates this point, for in the globalised world of transnational crime, Timor has evidently been identified as an ‘ideal’ place for the distribution of drugs to other nations – a rather damning critique of the perceived effectiveness of Timorese government’s social, security and economic policies in combating crime.

What makes this case especially concerning is the profile of the suspects – whilst many have viewed Timor’s many disaffected and unemployed youth as a prime recruiting ground for crime groups, the involvement in this case of middle-class and politically connected criminals significantly raises the stakes – as modus operandi of organised crime is also to network and collude with players in the ruling classes and criminal justice system, in order to legitimise their operations and clear the obstacles that societies and governments rightly establish to protect themselves from criminal activity. This is why the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (of which Timor is bound) stresses the need for nation states to impose and regulate strict anti-corruption regimes. Timor is of course particularly susceptible to such criminal-political collusion as within this nation political elitism, social cliques and broadly established patron-client relationship networks prevail in both the PNTL and the councils of government.

FM is not suggesting that this case establishes that Timor’s organised crime problem is currently out of hand, or that we have a systemically criminally collusive and corrupt government and police force. However, it is naive to think that this case represents either the start or the end of organised crime in Timor, and it is apparent to even the most casual observer that at the present point Timor has all the right ingredients for organised crime to flourish. In this instance the criminals sought to expose weaknesses in Timor’s policing and border protection and customs systems, the next may involve exploiting lax monitoring in the financial sector, or the recruitment of the masses of unemployed and desperate youth for criminal acts, or the lack of effective oversight and anti-corruption measures within the PNTL, or the corruption of relatively lowly paid employees in the political and security sectors, or the lack of education around drugs, violence and human trafficking in our schools.

What is therefore important is how the Government and relevant authorities act from this point forward. Option one is for there to be much backslapping and congratulations of a job well done, and at the same time a feeling within the powers that be of immunity and faith in the status quo. If authorities adopt this option then they will inevitably leave the door open to even greater problems, for if the history of international drug trafficking is to teach us anything – from the infamous Golden Triangle of Asia, to the mountains and foothills of Columbia and the streets of Mexico – it is that a nation that has an initially weak, disinterested, corrupt or even collusive government establishes the foothold for organised crime to develop, and that once this foothold is entrenched, it is almost impossible to eradicate the culture of organised crime from a nation – this despite the passing of generations, substantial resources allocated and sometimes heroic efforts of future governments and security sector actors. We must not let this be the case in Timor-Leste!

Option two is for the authorities treat this case as a warning shot, a wake up call for action and commitment to the policies of crime prevention. Indeed, FM notes some positive developments in the attempts to address this problem:

• On 2 September 2014, The Council of Ministers approved a Draft Law on Combatting Trafficking and Illegal Consumption of Drugs, “…to establish the legal framework for combatting narcotic trafficking, impose the appropriate measures of control and surveillance to drug trafficking, and determine the adoption of multidisciplinary measures aiming treatment and reintegration of drug addicts.”

• In June 2014, Timor-Leste acceded to the United Nation’s Convention Against Illegal Trafficking in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (and is preparing to ratify the two remaining UN conventions on combating drugs).

Nevertheless FM also notes that laws alone cannot solve this problem, and that along with many other problems in this land, there are often wide and tragic gaps between the words of the authorities and their subsequent actions and performance. We therefore recommend that the Government follows-up their words with deeds, and addresses both drug trafficking and organised crime by:

1. Declaring a “War on Drugs” – not through employing empty rhetoric, but by engaging with all relevant Government and non-Government actors including the Ministry of Defense and Security, SEFOFE, Education Ministry, the Secretary of State Youth and Sports, Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Social Solidarity, academics, civil society and community groups to develop an integrated and multi-level drug policing and prevention policy and implementation strategy.

2. Making a genuine attempt to uphold our obligations under UN drug conventions and also the Convention against Transnational Organized Crime. Specific areas to address involve strengthening the regulatory and supervisory regime for banks and non-bank financial institutions to prevent laundering of the proceeds of crime; continuing to promote and priorities anti corruption measures within the political and security sectors; and undertaking bilateral and multilateral agreements and intelligence sharing with our regional neighbors to fight organized crime and trafficking.

3. Requesting that the PNTL Command strengthens its community based policing strategy to increase cooperation with community members and leaders as cultivating better relationships with community sources will garner more accurate intelligence and lead to better detection of organized crime networks and activities, active members, and family members of criminals.

4. Addressing the long-term problem of unemployed and disaffected groups and individuals with programs that promote education, employment and social inclusion

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