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Detector Dogs: Regional border security capacity building strengthens New Zealand’s ‘offshore disruption’ capability

Line of Defence Magazine, Winter 2017

FRCA team at TrenthamFRCA team at Trentham


Detector dogs trained in New Zealand as part of the NZ Customs and Police Fiji Detector Dog Project are disrupting international crime syndicates that use the island nation as a transit point for smuggling, writes Nicholas Dynon.


On the afternoon of 15 May, a 27-year-old salesman appeared in Fiji’s Suva Magistrates court following arrest for allegedly attempting to import Methamphetamine into the country. A joint operation between the Fiji Revenue and Customs Authority (FRCA) and the Fiji Police Force’s Transnational Crime Unit and Organised Crime Unit led to the arrest after the suspect fronted up at a post office counter to collect the package.

According to FRCA’s Chief Executive Officer, Mr Visvanath Das, the consignment had arrived at the Post Office via controlled delivery by Border Police after the drugs were initially detected by FRCA’s Nadi International Airport-based Detector Dog Unit.

It was the latest in a string of thirteen interceptions of hard drugs by the Detector Dog Unit over the past six-months, with a combined value of over FJD 6.1 million (NZD 4.1 million). The unit has also detected other narcotics, including cannabis, steroids, Ephedrine (precursor) and liquid products used for producing explosives, and thousands of dollars’ worth of smuggled currency.

It’s not bad going for a unit that only commenced operations on 22 November last year, when New Zealand High Commissioner to Fiji, Mark Ramsden, officiated at the opening of accommodation at Nadi Airport for four trained detector dogs donated by Wellington.


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Trentham-trained, Fiji-bound

FRCA’s first-ever cohort of detector dogs graduated from their course at the Dog Training Centre at Trentham, Upper Hutt in September 2015 as part of the New Zealand Customs and Police Fiji Detector Dog Project. The project introduced detector dogs to the island nation in a bid to prevent criminals using Fiji as a transit point for illicit goods in the Pacific

Part of the Royal New Zealand Police College (RNZPC), the centre delivers national training courses for dog handlers, the police dog breeding programme and the puppy development programme. It also trains staff in partner agencies that use enforcement and detector dogs.

National Coordinator for Police Dogs, Inspector Todd Southall, commented that NZ Police is proud of the continued success of the trainers and dogs that go through the Dog Training Centre facility at Trentham. “Police also recognise the continuing and strengthened relationship between Police and Customs in both New Zealand and Fiji,” he said.

“The Fiji detector dog program has a focus on long-term capability and border security, and we are very pleased with the results so far.”

In early June, a further six Fijian handlers and their dogs graduated from the centre. According to NZ Customs Acting Group Manager for People and Capability, Paul Campbell, this second batch of graduates increases the number of teams that can be used in Fiji to eight, and allows for deployment in Suva for the first time.

“This initiative demonstrates the way agencies and countries can collaborate to deliver outcomes that benefit the wider Pacific, and is reflective of our determination to apply a range of solutions, both technical and traditional, to screen people, goods and craft,” he said.


A FRCA dog in detection modeA FRCA dog in detection mode


Responding to new threats

According to Roy Lagolago, NZ Customs’ Pacific Liaison officer, traditional screening methods include using data to develop profiles of people who may be high risk at the border, and harnessing the “gut instinct of the customs officer” in observing and profiling. “Adding things like canine units, x-ray machines, narcotics scanning machines to these traditional methods helps us to enhance what we do,” he told Line of Defence.

“This is one of the big things about the international collaboration, and we’re also fortunate that MFAT has come on board to provide the necessary funding for this.”

The Fiji Detector Dog Project is funded through the Pacific Security Fund, which is administered by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. MFAT administers the Fund, which makes available $2.7 million per year for projects in the Pacific run by New Zealand government agencies that advance or protect New Zealand’s security interests.

Based in Wellington, Roy’s remit includes the broad sweep of the Pacific. It’s a large and complex network of relationships, but one that provides him – and New Zealand – with a bird’s eye view of the region.

“The transnational crime syndicates that we’re targeting in the Pacific often turn out to be the same one’s we’re targeting in New Zealand,” he said. “I’m the guy who comes in and connects the dots.”

According to Roy, the Pacific wasn’t always an area of interest for crime groups, but with Australia and New Zealand continuing to tighten their borders, direct approaches are increasingly difficult and they’re looking for alternative avenues. Fiji is seen as a good point of transshipment.

He sees the Fiji Detector Dog Project as a good example of how agencies and countries can collaborate to combat the emerging threat. “Traditionally, we’ve just worried about what’s coming to our borders, but now we’re looking at ‘offshore disruption’. If we can help Fiji to disrupt at their border this will have a flow on effect to New Zealand.

“The relationship with FRCA has been really positive,” he continues. “These initiatives are really valuable in providing information – allowing us to be more intelligence led – so that we can utilise our resources in the most effective way.

In the emerging threat landscape, information is more important than ever, with an increasing need to be securing virtual borders in addition to physical ones. “We have invisible borders and cyber borders that are starting to appear, requiring new capabilities, he said, “so it’s important that we work closely with our Pacific partners, not only for protecting New Zealand’s borders but also capacity building for protecting theirs’.”


Capacity – and confidence – building

According to Sakiusa Lasaqa, Fiji Inland Revenue and Customs Authority’s Detector Dog Unit team leader, the threat landscape has been altered by recent increases in flights and imports to Fiji, which are being exploited by transnational crime groups.

Consolidating Nadi’s role as the regional transport and tourism hub is Nadi International Airport’s new terminal building, due to be officially opened at the end of this year.

For Sakiusa, the value of the detector dogs and capacity building measures from NZ Customs and NZ Police has been in the results. “There has been an increase in seizure of narcotics at the border,” he told Line of Defence, “[just] last week there were a number of seizures.”

“The dogs are quite a new thing, so the good number of detections we’ve had in the past seven months have given confidence,” he said. Gaining trust and confidence among other airport stakeholders, he highlighted, is crucial to encouraging these parties to refer matters to the fledgling unit.

Apart from detector dogs, NZ Customs is also working with FRCA on a range of initiatives, such as building the profiling capability of officers at the airport via a leadership development program. “This is not just at the primary line, but throughout the whole process of passenger handling,” said Roy, “The Border Compliance Unit is now actively profiling and this has resulted in the identification of a transnational crime syndicate.”

Such initiatives fall under the Fiji Country Plan (2017-2021), an agreement in which NZ Customs provides technical expertise and support to FRCA to improve border management, and in turn FRCA provides the personnel and infrastructure to deliver the Plan. It’s a plan that so far appears to be netting real results.


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