Eight jailed for cocaine washed up on Tongan beach

Photo: SLM

Eight Tongans in Vava’u were sentenced to between three years to 13.5 years’ imprisonment for their opportunistic roles in handling blocks of cocaine from a large shipment, found washed up on ‘Otualea Beach there in 2021.  

They were caught in an investigation that started when children at Holeva picked up a brick of cocaine on the beach and handed it in to authorities. 

The estimated 36kgs of cocaine washed ashore could be worth close to US$8.2 million on Australian market values. Not all of it was recovered. 

Justice Cooper sentenced the eight accused via audio visual link on 30 March at the Supreme Court in Nuku’alofa, issuing 50 pages of written sentencing remarks. 

The seven men and one woman were sentenced on charges, including the supply and possession of the illicit drugs. Sentences ranged from the highest of 13 and a half-year’s imprisonment for the leading accused to the lowest of three-years’ imprisonment, while fully suspended for another. 

“For these eight defendants there is a very wide range of involvement, from those who found and accumulated, hid and then supplied the cocaine, to those that sought it out so as to supply it on, to people who sought it but seemingly knew not what to do and handed it to friends, and those that disposed of it, not wanting it or to avoid them and their families falling foul of the law,” stated Justice Cooper. 

Justice Cooper said he was sure the defendants played no part in the importation of these drugs because to be sold commercially it needed a large scale cocaine orientated drug-dealing infrastructure for that to take place. 

“In all likelihood Vava’u was, or still is, being used as a staging post for a drugs cartel or cartels involved in the international supply of cocaine,” he said. 

The eight accused were: Nomani Naeata, Eric Movete Lolohea, Mele Fua’eiki Pale, Tui Pale, Leonati Motuliki, Makisi ‘Ahovelo, Kapeni Tama’ua and Fe’ofa’aki Havea. 

Leading offender, Nomani Naeata was sentenced to 13 and a half years’ imprisonment, with the last two-years suspended for two-years on conditions for three counts of supplying 3 kilograms of cocaine each on three separate occasions. 

The judge noted that the accused entered his pleas extremely late on the day, when the prosecution was closing its case. 

“I have considered carefully what Naeata’s role was. He orchestrated the recovery of large amounts of cocaine he found on the beach, hiding it at his home and in one case a further packet at a beach. He then sought out others to find buyers for the cocaine and supplied them accordingly. 

“He was distributing commercial quantities of cocaine to others below him in the chain with the aim of their sale and those profits. He therefore had a leading role.” 

Eric Lolohea 36 was sentenced to 13-years imprisonment, with the last two-years suspended for three-years on conditions. He was convicted after a trial for possession of three kilograms of cocaine. 

“He plainly was motivated by financial advantage from what he told police. Given the quantity and the clear efforts to go on to supply those illicit drugs I find that his role was significant. He involved others for financial reward, he was motivated by financial advantage and had some awareness of the scale of the operation.”

The judge said the packets did indeed contain cocaine and had been carefully wrapped in sheets of plastic and cling film, even leather, no doubt to keep them waterproof. 

“It does not seem any were damaged in transit. They had been packaged onto a bamboo raft and left to drift, so as to find their way ashore, they must have been aimed at the Vava’u coast and for a person or persons’ unknown who are involved with an international criminal network in the supply of cocaine. 

“The blocks were found to each weigh no less that 1 kilogram each and they bore a logo stamped into their surface. None were tested as to purity, though logic dictates they were almost certainly close to or at 100 percent pure,” he said. 

The judge said that the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime had produced a report collating their findings for the prices of cocaine worldwide. There are significant variations depending on the target country for importation. 

“The only stated example within Oceania for wholesale prices per kilogram is for Australia in 2010. The maximum purity encountered was 90%. The prices quoted are in American dollars. In that example 50 percent to 90 percent purity equated to a price of US$192,431.10 to US$229,084.60 per kilogram,” he said. 

“That means the shipment that washed up in Vava’u that Naeata found was likely to have been in the order of US$4,659,519.60 to US$8,247,045.60 (Australian 2010 wholesale prices). In all likelihood it would be closer to the US$8.2 million mark than less.” 

“I am quite sure that Naeata as well as the other defendants who fall to be sentenced by me, played no part in the importation of these drugs,” stated Justice Cooper. 

“To be sold commercially the cocaine needed to be cut and mixed with adulterants and then find its way to a market where that quantity could be distributed so the need for a large scale cocaine orientated drug-dealing infrastructure for that to take place. Plainly, this was not going to happen in Tonga. 

“In all likelihood Vava’u was, or still is, being used as a staging post for a drugs cartel or cartels involved in the international supply of cocaine.” 

He said the defendants were not involved in the importation, some went on to cooperate with the police and give evidence for the Crown at trials of co-defendants, some were involved and then disposed of everything the next day without using any, in one case disposed of everything his son-in-law had bought so that no one would get into trouble for breaking the law (at least, that is the finding on the jury’s finding).