SLAVE BOATS, FISH POACHERS, DRUG, GUN AND PEOPLE SMUGGLERS ARE IN THE SIGHTS OF THOSE POLICING THE WATERS AND ISLANDS ACROSS THE TOP END, WRITES PETER MICHAEL
SLAVE boats. Fish poachers. Drug traffickers. Gun smugglers. Transnational crime syndicates.
Billion-dollar booty. Poverty. Disease. And a spy scandal. Former SAS soldier “Mick” lives and works in the Torres Strait on the front line of Australia’s secret, private war.
“It’s only a short boat ride,’’ he tells his political cargo at Saibai Island, only 3km from the Papua New Guinea mainland. “But expect to get wet.’’
He is one of the highly trained ex-SAS warriorsturned-trainers who populate these isolated mosquitoridden coastal villages covered by the Torres Strait Treaty. Black wraparound sunglasses. Khaki shirt. Gunslinger stance. Mick and his quiet, lean offsider have the look of hard, capable men who like a challenge and can thrive in the toughest and most remote of conditions.
“It’s the Land of the Unexpected,’’ says Mick. “So expect that too.’’
These battle-hardened warriors, their life experience forged in the heat of Australia’s covert operations in Africa, Afghanistan and Iraq, have become private contractors and taken up a new mission.
They prefer to call it “smart security”.
In the Torres Strait, in the populated islands of firstworld Australia, and the primitive tribal settlements along the southern coastline of PNG up to the Indonesia border, this is a different sort of campaign. Here it is a battle for “hearts and minds”.
INLOC is one of a handful of quietly influential private Australian “risk” companies operated by former SAS soldiers and working in Australia, New Guinea, the South Pacific and South-East Asia.
INLOC has teamed with the world-renowned Cairnsbased scientific organisation, Reef and Rainforest Research Centre, in a $21 million, fiveyear project to train 150 local villagers to be sea rangers in South Fly treaty villages of Western Province in PNG.
They’ve done the same in with remote indigenous communities in Queensland’s Wild River Rangers program, in Bougainville and Vanuatu.
In doing so, hopefully, those locals will become Australia’s eyes and ears in the fight against crime, corruption, terrorism, drugs, guns and human trafficking.
Mick, like the dentist in the toothbrush commercial, does not want to show his face. Or talk publicly. But, according to the INLOC website, they are expert in training indigenous peoples in coastwatch activities, community policing, health programs, surveillance and anti-poaching methods.
“In Africa some major business enterprises are dedicating two thirds of their previous ‘hard’ security budget on community engagement – what INLOC has developed into ‘smart security’,’’ it says.
“INLOC has already established enduring personal relationships across our operational footprint, affording us an extensive network of influence. (We have) ability to deliver robust services in location ‘at the coal face’ for sustained periods, even under difficult, harsh or hazardous conditions. Linguists include Tok Pisin, Bahasa Indonesia, Torres Strait Creole.
“We deliver a critical core of on-ground skills, infrastructure, and governance capacity, usually centred on ranger, gamekeeper or ecoguide training. By creating a marine ranger program, we provide food security, safe and reliable water transport, secure work areas in decentralised locations, and reliable electronic communications. The bottom line: local communities gain immense benefit.”
Two weeks ago they graduated their first class of 52 rangers at Mabaduan, a village visible across the water from Australia’s northernmost outpost of Saibai Island, so close the rusa deer swim across the channel at low tide.
Fish poachers, pirates, traffickers and transnational crime syndicates, too, are known to ply these waters. They seek to exploit a “backdoor” smuggling pipeline through the vast network of islands and reefs of our porous northern border.
Top-end federal MPs Warren Entsch and Nigel Scullion, two men who love their guns, hunting and fishing, invited Insight on the trip north on a charter flight out of Thursday Island for the official graduation ceremony.
It was a celebration of culture and colour, a spectacle of song and dance, with live demonstrations from the INLOC-trained rangers on how they can use a chainsaw, administer first aid, and build basic infrastructure. It was also good timing. Days earlier, authorities on both sides of the border had launched one of the biggestever anti-human-trafficking operations in the Torres Strait to hunt down a fleet of 33 slave boats believed to be illegally fishing in the region.
It was a tip-off from unnamed local sources to Australia’s new Border Force who advised PNG authorities of the fleet and it led to the impounding of the mother ship of the Thai crime syndicate-run operation.
Eight refugees from Myanmar and Cambodia who had been used as slave labour by the fish pirates – chained to the boats, kept in cages, tortured and starved – were rescued from the 1200sq m refrigerated tanker, Blissful
PNG officials impounded the ship at Daru as the rest of the flotilla of 33 wooden fishing trawlers, each carrying up to eight indentured slavelabour workers, fled back over the border into international waters amid a huge air and sea search.
Border Force helicopters and light aircraft flew sorties in and out of Saibai Island as the Australian political delegation and RRRC executives were ferried to PNG by speedboat driven by the ex-SAS team.
“We prefer not to talk too much about the SAS guys,’’ says Entsch, whose vast electorate of Leichhardt stretches from Cairns to the Torres Strait and PNG border.
“INLOC do a great job. But they like to be low-profile. They quietly prefer to get on with the terrific work they’ve been doing in building local capacity and infrastructure in these 13 treaty villages.
“But it is outrageous to find that slave boats even still exist