South Pacific: DEA Mass Body Search of Plane Passengers Spurs Angry Reaction in Marianas

Lawmakers and travel industry spokesmen on the island of Saipan in the Northern Mariana Islands, are furious with the DEA over an October 4 incident where the agency conducted a mass body search of passengers arriving on a charter jet from China. Tourism officials have apologized to China over the incident, the local congress has passed a resolution condemning the searches, and in the latest reverberation, the Marianas government has pulled its police from the local DEA task force.

https://stopthedrugwar.org/files/marianaislands.jpg
Northern Mariana Islands (map from 4uth.gov.ua)
The Marianas, formally known as the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands (CNMI), is a US territory situated roughly three-quarters of the way to Australia from Hawaii. The islands have a population of about 80,000 and rely heavily on tourism.

The October 4 incident occurred in the pre-dawn hours when a Shanghai Airlines charter flight arrived at Saipan International Airport. Acting on what it said was a tip about drugs on the flight, the DEA subjected 147 of 187 arriving passengers -- all Chinese nationals -- to intensive body searches. The agents forced passengers into a small room, then forced them to remove their clothing to be searched. No drugs were found, although the DEA reported it had seized some contraband plant and animal items.

Many of the passengers were outraged by their treatment and reported it to their government. They also vowed never to return to the CNMI again. That had local officials scrambling to undo the harm.

"I want to let you know that my administration is extremely displeased with the manner in which this activity was conducted," said Gov. Benigno Fitial in an October 10 letter to the tour company and hotel involved in the deal that brought the Chinese tourists to Saipan. "We did not approve of this and do not support such treatment of visitors to our islands."

That same day, Marianas Visitors Authority managing director Perry Tenorio sent a similar letter to the Chinese consulate in Los Angeles. "We hope that this regrettable and isolated incident does not alter your affection for the CNMI and its people," Tenorio said.

Late last week, still fuming over the DEA's actions and unresponsiveness, the CNMI House of Representatives passed a strongly worded resolution demanding that the US Department of Justice investigate the mass search. The resolution also called for the department to inform China that the DEA -- not local customs or immigration officials -- was responsible for the searches.

"The House of Representatives of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands hereby calls for a full and complete investigation into the activities and the causes of those activities that led to an episode at the Francisco C. Ada Saipan International Airport that embarrassed and degraded honored guests of the Northern Mariana Islands and may have violated their civil rights," stated the resolution.

"These searches, and the abhorrent treatment of the passengers subjected to it, caused extreme embarrassment, discomfort, fear, and a feeling of perverse violation to the affected tourists and other guests of the Commonwealth," the resolution said. It also called the searches "harsh and irrational" and said they had caused irreparable harm "to the reputation of the Commonwealth and to the psyches of the victims of this demeaning episode."

And that's the watered down version. After Federal Relations Committee Chair Diego Benavente expressed concern over harsh language, the House voted to remove a provision of the resolution containing the phrase "multiple fondling of the passengers' private parts."

The fall-out continued this week. The CNMI Department of Public Safety announced Monday that it was pulling four Saipan police officers from the DEA Northern Marianas task force. That comes just days after the CNMI withdrew six other police officers and one customs officer from the task force. That withdrawal will be in effect until the DEA provides a complete explanation of the October 4 incident, government officials said.

At this point, the government of the CNMI doesn't seem to care much what impact the withdrawal will have on the DEA's work. When asked if the pull-out would hamper DEA operations, a police spokesman replied only, "That remains to be seen."

Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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From Jay, Saipan, CNMI

The CNMI are not in the South Pacific, but are actually in the tropics at 15 degrees north of the equator. The 'South Pacific' draws to mind images of French Polynesia (south of the equator), but this term is kind of vague anyway. At the very least, I have never heard people in the CNMI or Guam calling the area the 'South Pacific.' They are in the western Pacific, just east of the Philippines.

These islands have been the site of frequent DEA investigations, but usually what makes the local news are drug busts on CNMI farmers growing marijuana plants. What appears so damaging about this particular case is the harm that will be done to prospective tourism from China. The CNMI House resolution to inform "China" (who in China exactly is not stated here) that the searches were from the US DEA and not by CNMI law enforcement is par for the course right now -- there are many vehemently debated issues surrounding the increasing 'federalization' of control over CNMI autonomy (or perceived autonomy, as the case may be).

The US intends to build up military bases on these islands and to restrict fishing in some of the northernmost islands by making them an environmental 'monument,' according to the US executive branch last Monday. The local islanders are fed up in general about increasing US control over this territory that is on the margins of the US empire, and which until recently existed in an ambiguously distant relationship with the US (the CNMI used to have control of immigration and minimum wage, and they still have exclusionary land laws). To me, this DEA gaff story seems like one in a long line of aggressive displays of power by the United States in islands that would be better thought of as Native American reservations. Only they're not. For 'strategic purposes,' these indigenous islanders will probably have to give up many laws that grant the locals special rights and political control -- the CNMI has little choice about becoming the newest US military bases in the Western Pacific because of the slow closure of bases on Okinawa.

Raven's Nest

From the tone of your comment, Jay in Saipan, I'd have to say that you are a full-blown Obama junkie. Has the cup of Joe arrived?

Raven's Nest

What a totally insipid reply to Jay's post by Anonymous on Mon, 10/27/2008 - 6:40am!

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