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Police presence may return to Kona airport to combat flow of dangerous drugs

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Rainbow fentanyl recovered by the Hawai’i Island Police Department in West Hawai’i in September 2022. Photo: Hawai’i Police Department

Only three weeks into the new year and Hawaiʻi Police Department’s Vice Section in Kona has recovered illicit drugs — including fentanyl, heroin and methamphetamine — from several people arriving at Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport at Keāhole.

Vice Lt. Edwin Buyten said the majority of the illegal drugs trying to be smuggled onto the Big Island now is illegal fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 50 times more deadly than heroin.

In an effort to disrupt the flow of drugs into the community, vice officers are trying to re-establish a regular presence at the Kona airport (KOA), the busiest on Hawaiʻi Island.

For the past year and a half, Lt. Buyten has been working with airport officials to restore the office space at the Kona airport that had been used in the past for vice detectives and a K9 handler. The Hawaiʻi Police Department lost the office about two years ago after the airport needed it back. They currently work out of the Kona police station, which is minutes from the airport.

Lt. Buyten said the leaders at KOA are doing everything they can to help the police, but they are dealing with an infrastructure issue.

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Hawaii Department of Transportation Director Ed Sniffen said HDOT supports the County of Hawaiʻi’s efforts in enforcement, especially drug enforcement.

“Office space that was previously available to Hawaiʻi Police Department prior to the Federal Inspection Service Center opening will soon be available again,” Sniffen said in an email. “The Hawaiʻi DOT are happy to have Hawaiʻi Police Department back at Keāhole Airport if they are interested.”

Sniffen said HDOT welcomes active dialogue with the County of Hawaiʻi and with the new Chief about how the state agency on Hawaiʻi island might be best able to support the police operations.

“And we will keep the community posted on any changes that may occur on DOT properties,” he said.

Hawaiʻi Police Chief Ben Moszkowicz said he can’t wait for the Vice team to get back to doing drug interdiction work at the airport.

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“Our partnership with the Hawaiʻi DOT will be instrumental in helping stem the flow of drugs into our community through the airports and seaports,” the chief said. “This foothold at the Kona airport will allow our personnel easy access to the flow of packages, cargo and even people who choose to carry illegal drugs throughout our island. Ultimately, we feel this continued partnership will help make our community a safer place.”

Lt. Buyten’s vision for the airport is to have two to three investigators, one of which would be a K9 handler, scheduled to work there full time.

“They would be on site all the time,” he said. “It also helps further investigations through intelligence gathering. As soon as something leaves the airport, we’re playing catch up when we could put a stop to it right there. It’s a cat and mouse game.”

Lt. Buyten said drug smuggling through the airlines is prevalent in the state of Hawaiʻi, either by person or through packages.

“The fentanyl we’ve recovered and investigated has all has come through the airport,” he said. “We have a low law enforcement footprint for the size of the island, but the drugs are bottlenecked at the airport.”

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In May 2022, Hawai’i County created a Fentanyl Task Force to deal with the growing epidemic of overdose deaths from the deadly drug that is plaguing the nation and claimed the lives of several people on the Big Island in the past two years.

Under Lt. Buyten’s leadership, the Vice section has successfully recovered large amounts of illicit drugs from passengers arriving at the Kona airport and disrupted and dismantled a local drug distribution organization, which was supplied by a Mexican cartel.

Police made two major busts at the airport — one in 2021 and the other in 2022 — where suspects were found with thousands of fentanyl pills, heroin and methamphetamine.

While these busts were made without a presence at the airport, Lt. Buyten said the Vice section could do more.

“When we’re forward operating and on the offensive, the team and K9 make more recoveries,” he said. “We want to be embedded in a place where [the drugs] are getting into our community.”

The more dangerous drugs that police can intercept at the airport before they make their way to dealers and drug users around the island, the more lives that can be saved. In 2021, Hawai’i County had 32 drug-related deaths.

Gary Yabuta, Director for Hawai‘i’s High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Agency, said drugs enter the state through the airports by parcel, mail, travelers or air cargo.

The drug trafficking agency, established by the U.S. Congress in 1988, coordinates and assists federal, state, local and tribal law enforcement agencies to address regional drug threats with the purpose of reducing drug trafficking and drug production in the United States. Yabuta, who is based in Honolulu, said HIDTA helps police departments statewide in forming interdiction task forces.

“We can mobilize but we all have to work together,” Yabuta said.

Honolulu Police officers arenʻt stationed at the Daniel K. Inouye International Airport all the time. Yabuta said officers must have knowledge about when drugs are coming in before being dispatched to the airport.

And while vice officers don’t necessarily have to have a facility at the Kona airport to run drug interdiction, Yabuta said it is helpful to be as close as possible.

He praised the Hawaiʻi Police Department for its efforts in taking fentanyl off the streets: “They are taking this smack on. … They’re being very innovative and creative because the dealers are to sell this poison.”

Yabuta said drug trafficking in the state is “everywhere, but it appears the saturation is on the Big Island” because it’s harder to detect due to Hawaiʻi County’s size and numerous remote areas.

“Heroin and opioid abuse has been profound on the Big Island, and the jump to fentanyl was logical,” Yabuta said.

Tiffany DeMasters
Tiffany DeMasters is a reporter for Big Island Now. Tiffany worked as the cops and courts reporter for West Hawaii Today from 2017 to 2019. She also contributed stories to Ke Ola Magazine and Honolulu Civil Beat.
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