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First of a two-part series about drugs and crime on Guam and Mariana Islands.

Guam and Mariana Islands officials are disputing a federal report labeling the popular Pacific-tourist destinations as “high-risk security areas” due to the presence of Asian gangs and the potential for terrorist activity.

R.G. Meissner, regional security specialist for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Eastern District of Virginia, prepared the 34-page report for the U.S. Justice Department.

The April 25, 2002, document was completed at the request of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Districts of Guam and the Northern Marianas after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. It was not made public until excerpts from the document were published last month in the Marianas Variety newspaper.

The report was “a sensitive document” that “somebody leaked to the paper,” said Russell Stoddard, the first assistant U.S. Attorney for Guam and the Mariana Islands. Stoddard declined further comment on the report.

Spokeswomen for Andersen Air Force Base and U.S. Naval Forces Marianas on Guam had little to say about Meissner’s report.

“The base is aware of the report,” said 2nd Lt. Sarah Small of Andersen. “As far as our force protection goes, we’re just maintaining the appropriate level of security.”

Lt. Thurraya Kent, a Navy spokeswoman on Guam, echoed that statement. The Navy is “maintaining appropriate levels of security to protect our facilities and personnel,” she said.

Despite the report, both Guam and Mariana officials say their islands are safe. “In the last four years, we’ve really become a family destination,” said Peter Callaghan, Commonwealth of North Mariana Islands spokesman and press secretary to Gov. Juan Babauta. Callaghan also called the report “sensitive” and intended for the internal review of local and federal government officials on the islands.

He first read the report about five months ago, he said. “I don’t want to say we’re taking it with a grain of salt, but we realize that the reality of criminal activity has changed dramatically since this report was compiled,” he said.

In the report, Meissner said the most common illegal activities on the islands are “public corruption, the importation and sale of crystal methamphetamine or ‘ice’ and immigration crimes,” the Variety said.

Members of Chinese triad, Japanese yakuza, and Russian and Korean mafias are criminally active in the Mariana Islands including Saipan, Tinian and Rota, the report said. Crimes include gambling, prostitution, drugs, money laundering and the exploitation of the immigrant population.

Callaghan said Meissner’s conclusions are based on outdated information. “I think the report was based on information provided during the late 1990s, when there was quite a bit of boom in the economy,” he said. “Back then, there was what I would call very low-key gang activity. Now, that activity is zero to nonexistent.”

Callaghan called Mariana Islands one of the safest places in the world. The worst crime committed against a Saipan tourist in recent years was the theft of a camera from a car, he said.

Frank Blas Jr., Guam’s homeland security adviser to Gov. Felix Camacho, said he believes the report says criminal gang activity is more of a problem on the Mariana Islands than Guam. That coincides "with the information we receive on a daily basis," Blas said. He attributes his assessment to U.S. immigration laws, which are in effect on Guam — a U.S. territory — but not in the Mariana Islands.

Meissner has recommended the Justice Department consider extending federal immigration laws to the Mariana Islands.

Stoddard said his office has prosecuted gang-related crimes from immigration smuggling, gambling, extortion to drug cases. Less resources are spent investigating violent crimes in Guam and Mariana Islands than in similar-size jurisdictions in the States, he said, adding drugs are a major problem with almost 100 percent of the cases involving methamphetamine.

The FBI investigates mostly white-collar crimes on Guam, said Kent Stout, senior FBI supervisory resident agent for Guam and Saipan. Neither the U.S. Attorney’s Office nor the FBI on Guam could provide recent criminal statistics for their jurisdictions.

“Crime on a per capita basis is just much lower here than most places,” Stout said. “There’s no areas of the island that you’d be afraid to walk in.”

Saipan has some gang activity, Stout said, adding that organized crime has an “influence” over legalized gambling.

While crime is an issue for Guam’s FBI and homeland security agents, the terrorist threat is more pressing. “Our biggest concern over here is the possibility of a terrorist attack on one of our two main military installations” or a tourist area, Stout said.

Blas added: “We’re only three hours away from terrorist hot spots in Southeast Asia. We’re recognized as America in Asia, and there has been international recognition of Guam’s strategic role to the military. “We recognize that these are some things that terrorist groups would consider.”

Meissner agrees. Guam and the Mariana Islands offer a “target-rich environment for terrorist activity,” with its federal law enforcement agencies, military facilities, visiting U.S. Navy vessels, munitions storage facilities, fuel storage sites, Marine preposition ships and military personnel, according to the Variety.

Since the release of the report, Guam has made strides to protect its 209 square miles, Blas said.

With the creation of Guam’s three-person homeland security office in April, the U.S. has “a greater appreciation of our needs here,” Blas said, adding: “More needs to be done. If something happens, we’re on our own for at least the first 24 to 72 hours.”

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Jennifer reports on the U.S. military from Kaiserslautern, Germany, where she writes about the Air Force, Army and DODEA schools. She’s had previous assignments for Stars and Stripes in Japan, reporting from Yokota and Misawa air bases. Before Stripes, she worked for daily newspapers in Wyoming and Colorado. She’s a graduate of the College of William and Mary in Virginia.

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