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By Nan Woonton

RAROTONGA, Cook Islands (January 31, 2001 - Cook Islands Television/PINA Nius Online)---Those who boast about how often they have smuggled drugs into Cook Islands could be in for a severe shock.

The Cook Islands Customs Department and police force are teaming together to clamp down on drug smuggling, starting with body and luggage searches conducted at Rarotonga Airport.

"I was on television three months ago to warn the people that we are very serious in putting a stop to narcotics smuggling, so I was very disappointed when at our very first night that the searches began at the airport we caught a local smuggling in marijuana seeds," said Police Commissioner Pira Wichman.

"And yet everyone was warned that this crackdown is very significant to us, I was really disappointed that people are not taking us seriously," he said.

The searches began just over three weeks ago in anticipation of the arrival of the country's first narcotics dog.

Senior Constable Ngatokorua Ngatokorua is in New Zealand undergoing eight weeks of training as a dog handler. He is expected back home early March bringing the drug dog with him.

"I have every confidence in Ngatokorua as a dog handler, he will have a very big responsibility ahead of him, and so will the dog," Commissioner Pira Wichman said.

"We will be monitoring every point of entry for drug smuggling, that being the waterfront, the airport and the post, of course it is a heavy workload for both the dog and dog handler so a confidential roster will be worked out to search by," he said.

The customs department has the power to conduct the searches. When officers have strong suspects they then seek the assistance from the police who handle the matter from there.

Not every person is searched. What happens is that there are profiles of certain people who, after research into their background and community stance, amongst other things are then placed on a list of suspects if the police feel they have reason to.

"So far there have been no complaints about being searched, I think our people have traveled well around the world so they understand that this is standard procedure at any airport, anywhere in the world," said Commissioner Wichman.

The searches are conducted both for passengers departing and arriving.

Suspects may find themselves searched again at an airport in New Zealand.

According to the Police Commissioner it is procedure that the customs department in New Zealand request for the list of suspects so they can conduct their own searches.

"This is a topic that the police have talked about for the past four months, so people, don't ignore it," he warned. "We are going to put a stop to this."

The Commissioner has also stated that if anyone is caught with narcotics on them they will be arrested and put into jail straight away, at the first opportunity.

While the matter is up against the courts they will also make a request to the judge that the culprit remains in jail until a ruling has been made "so the community know that we mean business."

"We'd also like the community to know that we are here for them, if parents have any suspicions about their children being involved with drugs and they'd like assistance before it gets worse, don't hesitate to contact us.

"Some of the local police force have been trained in this area so if parents need advice, call the police, we can help," he said.

Pacific Islands News Association (PINA) Website: http://www.pinanius.org 

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