Savage Harvest In Papua New Guinea, marijuana brings in not just cash but guns. From highlands to coast, time penetrates the world of growers, warriors, police and traffickers

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In contrast to the sweltering rainforests beneath it, Mt. Wilhelm, at 4,509 m, is capped by snow and ice. The sides of this formidable mountain in the highlands of Papua New Guinea are laced with boggy roads, fertile soils and tiny villages. Like the thousands of square kilometers of highland around it, this is a beautiful and unconquerable place. Its inhabitants happily share resources to ensure even the frailest survive, but they sometimes take up arms over an insult. In the ranges surrounding Mt. Wilhelm, some of the most potent marijuana on earth is grown. Identifiable by its red stems, so-called Niugini gold is marketed with the promise of a superlative high. Around $250 an ounce ($A500 per 28 g) on the streets of Sydney, it is worth almost as much as the precious metal it is named for.

Well past nightfall, in an Eastern Highlands village 150 km east of Mt. Wilhelm, a man calls to friends in a house. "Come out and look," he says from the darkness. Even in silhouette, the object in his hands is immediately recognizable: an M-16 military assault rifle. Like their ancestors, the men of this district frequently engage in intertribal fighting; the last bloody conflict, police say, was just two months ago. Disputes over fence lines, injuries, insults or women are traditionally settled by raids and ambushes. For as long as anyone here can remember, life has been lived on a war footing. Nowadays, however, arguments are increasingly settled with modern weapons.

In this nation of 4.5 million people and more than 700 languages, military rifles have become as much a feature of village life as they are of the criminal, or raskol, milieu. In P.N.G.'s semi-subsistence rural economy, there was once no cash to purchase guns. Today, an abundant cash crop-marijuana-is making high-powered weapons affordable. Though the traffic is primarily domestic, the growing demand for guns within P.N.G.-and for drugs outside it-has taken the trade and its lethal consequences into Australia, Indonesia and the rest of Asia. "The effect of all this is, in one word, disaster," says Beno Boeha, director of P.N.G.'s National Research Institute. "The rise of modern weapons and marijuana has not only become an acclerator for the social problems we already have, it is also fashioning a new order."

The highlands provinces straddle New Guinea's mountainous spine from near Goroka in the east, to Mt. Hagen, Wabag and Mendi in the west, covering an area almost as large as Tasmania. Most villages here-and some in coastal areas-grow marijuana. It's a convenient cash crop and requires little to no tending. It has no season and is ready to harvest in months-unlike coffee, which takes six years to mature. "It's part of the economy," says a Goroka police sergeant, staring at parched cannabis that has been left exposed to rot. "These people live off the land, or they're unemployed. Marijuana helps them survive."

Climbing slopes in the Kompri Valley, near Henganofi in the Eastern Highlands, men in single file weave through the forest undergrowth, crisscrossing creeks and small coffee plantations. They stop on a ridge near thatched stilt houses surrounded by kitchen gardens. Here, among the cassava, pumpkins and beans, a man reaches far above his head and bends the top of a 2.5-m-tall cannabis plant, heavy with sought-after "heads," or flowering tips, up to 15 cm long. "This grows very easy," says the garden's owner. "We have to dry it first, but you can smell how good it is. And there is much," he adds, waving at the hillside behind him, where scattered cannabis bushes tower alone or in pairs. Large-scale plantings of the drug are uncommon; they're easier to detect and harder to protect. Besides, "marijuana grows everywhere here, it grows wild," says Superintendent Allan Kundi, police commander of Western Highlands province. "It's a very difficult thing to stop."

It is also hard to stop people smoking. As a social phenomenon, marijuana is relatively new to P.N.G., yet it has taken a firm hold. "It's only been like this in the past four or five years: marijuana came first, then the home brew," says police Supt. Leo Kabilo, who is based at Wewak, on the country's north coast. A U.N.-sponsored study in 1999 found that cannabis was the "illicit drug of greatest concern" in P.N.G. Whether on the streets of the capital, Port Moresby, or in a rural town, spak brus, "tobacco that makes you drunk," is not difficult to find. A "roll," a homemade cigarette weighing less than a gram, costs 6 in a village, 15 in a town, and up to 60 in Port Moresby.

In the Eastern Highlands village of Numuzafove, the community recently decided that action was needed. A dozen teenagers and young men whom elders thought were smoking excessively were forced to live for a month in a circular hut in the heart of the village. "We make them talk about their problem together. It will help them smoke no more," says villager Paul Kompri. On the last day of their segregation, Feb. 3, everyone in the clan area came to counsel the young men before sharing a mumu (a meal roasted on hot stones in an earth oven). "This process is very hard for them; after this they will not smoke," Kompri says. Will the plants be destroyed? "Oh, no, we need those," replies another man, tending the cooking pit. >p>While the drug culture is transforming village life, the introduction of modern weapons has made tribal conflict-endemic in the highlands -much more lethal. "When people know they're in trouble, about to be attacked by greater numbers or on two sides, they must find some means of defense," says Chief Supt. Simon Kauba, police commander of Chimbu province. "Ten years ago you would hardly see modern weapons, but in the last decade people have tried all desperate ways to acquire them." At first people made do with homemade shotguns with wooden frames and makeshift parts like mop-bucket springs as firing mechanisms. Such weapons, while still common, are becoming obsolete. "Once you could use a bow and arrow, but now people laugh if you stand and point a homemade shotgun at them," says a Numuzafove villager, brandishing the homemade gun that he loads with anything from 12-gauge shells to .50-caliber rounds. "Too many people have high-powered guns," says Herman Ambai, of Waigar village in Chimbu province. "It's because of the exchange-drugs exchanged for factory weapons." The going rate varies: in one place, 10 kg of marijuana will buy an American-made M-16, or a Chinese SKS or SKK; 100 km away the price could be 5 kg or 25 kg.

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The trade in guns has left police weaker than ever. "A village is left vulnerable these days without a factory weapon," says John Wakon, Commissioner of the Royal P.N.G. Constabulary. "The gun gives power to the tribe and is guarded by everyone." In searching for illicit weapons, police usually rely on informants. But they also seize them when they're being carried at election time to intimidate voters (a national ballot is due next year), or when guns are being transported for a tribal fight or for sale. Says Wakon: "There are more guns in the highlands than in the P.N.G. Defence Force."

Most of the weapons come from within P.N.G. The armory of the police station at Kundiawa, in Chimbu province, is a blue shipping container shoved up against a back door and secured with padlocks. Hundreds of confiscated homemade shotguns line the walls like a picket fence; four factory weapons are kept in a rack. Unusually, all four are traceable: a 5.56-mm French-made FA MAS, a gun used by the police mobile squad in the struggle against secessionists on Bougainville; a p.n.g.d.f. M-16 that's been linked to a soldier at Port Moresby's Taurama barracks; a Winchester shotgun from a police armory; and a .38 Smith & Wesson revolver "confirmed by serial number" as a police weapon.

Most factory weapons loose in P.N.G. are "hired, borrowed or stolen from the security forces," says an Australian law enforcement analyst. Wakon agrees: "Sometimes people in high places are linked to these things." As are rogue police and soldiers. In 1995, when Wakon was a police commander in the Central Highlands, he hunted down a police officer who had walked out of his post with his weapon to join his tribe in a fight. Wakon says the renegade officer, later dubbed "Rambo," led an ambush on a police convoy to capture more rifles. Leaning back in his chair, Wakon says the man was eventually shot dead: "We terminated his service."

The difficulty of keeping tabs on these weapons is illustrated by the movements of the M-16 held in the Eastern Highlands village. The rifle was stolen last year from a prison at remote Kainantu. Villagers say an escapee took a homemade shotgun back to the jail and robbed the armory. Now roaming the Eastern Highlands with a band of criminals, he traded the M-16 to the village. P.N.G.'s new prisons director, Richard Sikani, suspects collusion in the Kainantu theft. "That weapon should never have gone up to such a small jail," he says in his Port Moresby office, in a condemned four-story building with just two phone lines. Sikani, who was previously attached to the National Intelligence Organisation, says he knows the names of corrupt prison officers behind certain weapons disappearances. "I've referred three people to the police, and there's more to come," he says. An audit of Correctional Institution Service armories has been ordered. "The firearms and drugs trade in this country is an organized thing, even with some politicians-especially those from marijuana-growing areas," says Sikani.

There are external forces at play as well: syndicates and criminal entrepreneurs from Asia and Australia have started to exploit P.N.G.'s potential. In 1995 the Australian Federal Director of Public Prosecutions found that Niugini gold bought at $250 a pound was being resold for up to $2,250 in the north Queensland city of Cairns. In cities, ports, or remote villages, it is easy to find growers ready to negotiate a sale, though a current glut has trimmed prices to as little as $100 a kg. Sold by the ounce on the street in Australia, 1 kg can generate $8,000. Having factory-made weapons to exchange for the drug can make the trade even more lucrative for buyers.

Guns such as the AK-47, SS1, SKS, AR-10 and M-203 are trickling into P.N.G., through the land border with Indonesia; on Southeast Asian ships plying P.N.G.'s northern coasts; and, in small numbers, across the Torres Strait from Australia. And as guns flow in, drugs flow out. Because it is impossible for Europeans and Asians to escape attention in the highlands, trading is usually done in coastal cities like Lae, Madang, Wewak or Port Moresby. Says Waigar village's Ambai: "One of the boys from here who works on the coast arranged with a Japanese man at Madang to get nine high-powered guns for drugs."

In one well-organized operation under investigation by P.N.G. police, foreigners are believed to be transporting guns to Madang in containers of secondhand clothes. The shipments are cleared for customs by a corrupt government officer and then moved to the highlands using the syndicate chief's trucking company. Commissioner Wakon says attempts to pursue P.N.G. Foreign Affairs officers thought to be involved have been stymied; Foreign Affairs Minister Bart Philemon has now been personally asked to prod his department into cooperating.

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The key to the illicit trade is growers' ability to transport their cash crop. They have "plenty of product," says a senior Australian Federal Police agent, "but no distribution." That, he says, deters major Australian crime groups, leaving the market to Asian mariners or opportunistic Australians with good P.N.G. connections. Hidden amid produce being trucked to market, or carried on domestic flights, the drugs are brought to northern ports, from where they are smuggled out on commercial vessels, private yachts, or in shipping containers.

Australian criminal networks do make occasional forays into P.N.G., with patchy results. But their attempts to establish large-scale operations there are frustrated as much by the incompetence of local criminals as by the ineptitude of police. "It's disorganized organized crime," says a second a.f.p. agent. "You can have an informant in a crime cartel who says there's 20 kg coming down on Monday at a specific time, and then it doesn't happen. We learn later the P.N.G. guys behind it simply woke up that day and changed their mind. It would not be unusual if the drugs finally showed up two weeks later."

The border is only a minor hindrance. The 150-km-wide Torres Strait is dotted with more than 100 islands. A drug run by banana boat from P.N.G. can be accomplished in 15 min. if the destination is Saibai, the northernmost of Australia's islands; it takes a Customs surveillance helicopter 45 min. to fly to Saibai from its Thursday Island base. "They can arrive, bury the drugs, then sit back and watch the Navy, police or anyone else who comes along. When it's safe, they can dig it up," says the second a.f.p. agent.

The hard part, say P.N.G. dealers, is getting the marijuana close to Torres Strait. With no road link between the highlands and Western province, the drugs are carried on foot, or by boat or plane via Port Moresby. If the shipment is large, cannabis might be stockpiled at villages on the P.N.G. mainland, like Old Mawatta, Mabaduan and Sigabaduru, before heading for Yam, Badu or Thursday Island. As to the human connections, "it's like any other business: you have to have a network," says a P.N.G. government source. "If it's not organized, you just hit a brick wall." But the ties in this case are informal: a villager in Mari, on the edge of Torres Strait, may have been to school in Port Moresby with a highlander who can get the drugs on a plane; or a Chimbu man in the public service may be posted to a border area, where he provides help for growers from his district.

Daru, on the P.N.G. side of the strait, is a police base. It's also a smugglers' cove. A muddy island ringed by mangroves, Daru overflows with desperately poor mainlanders crammed into shanties, and is the port for hundreds of boat movements day and night. It is the illicit gateway to Australia. While Daru drug traders send most of their marijuana to their islander friends or relatives, they say that Australians often come to inspect their product and that other islanders come later to pay up and collect. The Australian buyers, they say, wait on the mainland until the purchase arrives. The task of making a dent in this trafficking is left to Daru police commander Supt. Norman Kambo and his men. But in mid-February, none of the eight boats they have dispersed along the coast was in working condition, nor could they afford the petrol to power them.

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The weakness of P.N.G. police means it's up to Australia to fill the breach. Canberra has pumped cash into Torres Strait (an extra $3.8 million in 1998) to improve surveillance, particularly at night, and enhance the performance of its P.N.G. partners. The strait is now the most closely watched strip of Australian water. a.f.p. liaison officers in Port Moresby and on Thursday Island help coordinate anti-drug intelligence and operations. For Supt. Kambo's men on Daru, AusAID has purchased a high-speed boat (which broke down in February), provided advisors, and improved communications.

But even with the Australians' diligence -including operations with military, state and federal police, Customs and Immigration; light aircraft, helicopters and a patrol boat-the results are hit-and-miss. More than 45,000 people crossed the strait legally last year; only a handful were searched. The drugs make it through in small batches-230 g hidden in tools here, 5 kg in a shopping bag there. But Kambo says his officers are encountering 50-kg shipments, with a potential street value in Australia of $250,000. It is impossible to quantify how much is getting through, but "it would be unreasonable to say we've got control over the waters of Torres Strait," says the senior a.f.p. agent.

Despite the relative ease of moving drugs and guns by sea, there are fears that traffickers also make covert flights to northern Australia. Members of a Sydney syndicate were caught in April 1995 flying from Mt. Hagen to Bamaga in north Queensland with 55 kg of marijuana; it is believed the profits were intended to fund a larger heroin shipment from Asia. Another group was foiled a year later. No one knows how often such flights take place. Surveillance of Australian airspace is incomplete; surveillance of P.N.G.'s is nonexistent. The Australian Defence Force and Customs are joining forces to assess the problem and exploring options for using new technology, such as unmanned aerial vehicles.

The biggest holes in P.N.G.'s borders are even more difficult for law enforcement to plug. Traditional border crosser (TBC) rights given to villagers along the Indonesian border and in Torres Strait are proving an open license to traffic in guns and drugs. "I won't sign the crossing cards anymore," says one official. "I don't want something with my name on it used to smuggle drugs." Village lifestyles blur the borders: gardens, relatives and hunting grounds can sit on both sides of these invisible lines. TBC cards allowing entry to the neighboring country for up to 21 days carry no photograph of the holder and few identifying details. "This is a very stupid document," says the official, shaking a copy of the Torres Strait Treaty. "It makes the smuggling impossible to stop." His calls for proper travel documents and restrictions on passage at night are echoed in Australia: even the Australian Customs Service suggested it to Parliament in 1996, and police today privately support the push. Still, nothing has changed.

Border agreements aside, the P.N.G. authorities are unable to police their own turf. Supt. Kambo says his station's nominal strength is 50 men to cover 58,200 sq km; he has just 26. On the Indonesian border at Vanimo, Chief Inspector Eugene Manguva has 16 officers, up from the three he had two years ago; he says he needs 40. He has no funds for border patrols anyway. To police 400,000 people, Supt. Kundi, at Mt. Hagen should have at least 500 officers; he makes do with 300. And Chimbu drug squad officer Det. Const. Young Wellis sits in a damp concrete bunker-a former cell block-with no phone or windows, a dilapidated typewriter, and confiscated marijuana spilling from every drawer and cupboard. There is not one police computer in all of the highlands or border regions. None of these men can expect any real assistance from the state: there is none to give.

Over coffee in his hilltop residence in Port Moresby, a relaxed and barefoot Prime Minister Sir Mekere Morauta tells Time that the way to curb the drug and gun trade "in the long term is gainful employment." But to Paul Kompri in Numuzafove village, Port Moresby and a steady job seem as remote as the moon. His worries are closer and more urgent. Kompri knows his belligerent neighbors in the next valley have a cache of powerful assault rifles. He's seen old friends succumb to marijuana addiction. Every night he prays "that when we leave this house we will be safe." There's a wilderness outside, filled with modern dangers-and no one knows how they're to be overcome.

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