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Northern Mariana Islands Drug Threat Assessment
October 2003


 Northern Mariana Islands.

Map showing the location of the Northern Mariana Islands.

Note: This map displays features mentioned in the report.

The Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) is part of the Mariana Island archipelago, which also includes Guam. The 500-mile-long, 14-island chain that composes the CNMI includes the islands Agrihan/Agrigan, Alamagan, Anatahan, Aguijan, Asuncion, Farallon de Medinilla, Farallon de Pajaros (Uracas), Guguan, Maug Islands, Pagan, Rota, Saipan, Sariguan, and Tinian. The CNMI is situated between Hawaii and the Philippines and is approximately 1,300 miles south of Tokyo, Japan. Saipan is the principal island in the chain, the commercial center, and the commonwealth's capital. The location of the islands in the Pacific Ocean provides easy access to many Asian countries: China (including Hong Kong), Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Laos, Myanmar, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Thailand.

Fast Facts
Northern Mariana Islands
Population (2000) 69,221 
Land area 183 square miles
Capital Saipan
Principal islands Saipan, Tinian
Principal industries Garment manufacturing, tourism

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The CNMI became a U.S. commonwealth in 1975. CNMI citizens neither pay U.S. taxes nor have the right to vote in U.S. elections. Approximately 30,000 of the nearly 70,000 people who live in the CNMI are U.S. citizens; most other residents are foreign workers. Approximately 25,000 people are native to the CNMI. Temporary workers from Bangladesh, China, India, Japan, Korea, and the Philippines are permitted to enter the CNMI; however, they are not free to enter the United States, and their presence on the islands does not constitute residency toward obtaining U.S. citizenship. Children born to foreign workers on the islands do receive automatic U.S. citizenship and are free to enter the United States.

Garment manufacturing and tourism are the major industries in the CNMI. The garment industry has grown rapidly as a result of duty benefits stemming from the relationship between the CNMI and the United States. Garments manufactured in the CNMI carry a "Made in the USA" label and typically are not inspected by the U.S. Customs Service (USCS) upon their arrival at mainland ports. Foreign investments by Korea- and Hong Kong-based businesses also have contributed to the rapid economic growth, particularly on Saipan. The garment industry recruits workers from Asia because of the limited supply of local labor. Only about 20 percent of garment industry workers are native to the CNMI.

Until 1998, tourism was the principal industry of the CNMI and generated the most revenue. The islands, as well as most of Asia, suffered an economic crisis during fiscal year (FY) 1998. As a consequence, the number of tourists visiting the CNMI decreased from 694,888 in 1997 to 490,165 in 1998. The number of tourists increased to 528,597 in 2000 and further increased in the first 8 months of 2001--signaling that the economy was rebounding. However, the events of September 11, 2001, caused another downturn in tourism, resulting in lower government revenues and reduced working hours or layoffs for many tourism industry workers. The tourism industry still employs 50 percent of the workforce but is no longer the chief industry of the CNMI.

Members of organized crime syndicates engage in drug distribution and money laundering. The development of gambling establishments that are loosely regulated--such as a large casino on Tinian that is geared toward wealthy Asian gamblers--offers fertile ground for criminal activities. Inconsistent reporting requirements for cash and wire transfers from regulated financial institutions to unregulated institutions allow the syndicates to easily access Asian underground banking systems. One violent Japanese organized criminal group, the Yakuza, has succeeded in penetrating CNMI business markets, particularly the tourism industry, according to USCS. The growing presence of Japanese tourists in the CNMI enables these Japanese criminals to blend with the local population.

Marijuana is the most widely abused illicit drug in the CNMI; however, the abuse of crystal methamphetamine increased dramatically during the last decade. Nearly all of the recent drug investigations conducted in the Pacific Islands involved the distribution of crystal methamphetamine. Most of the crystal methamphetamine smuggled into the CNMI is produced in Asian source areas; however, law enforcement investigations have revealed ties to crystal methamphetamine distributors in California.

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Other drugs also are available in the CNMI. Heroin and cocaine are available, although abuse is minimal. Authorities recently revealed that smugglers brought cocaine to the CNMI and distributed free samples of the drug in a failed attempt to establish a market. Law enforcement agencies reported only one LSD investigation in the CNMI during 1999. They increasingly note the abuse of common household products being used as inhalants by young people in the CNMI.

Law enforcement authorities are concerned about an increase in violence linked to illicit drugs, especially crystal methamphetamine. Drug distribution and abuse have precipitated an increase in the commission of crimes including assault, burglary, robbery, extortion, and murder. In 2000 the Department of Public Safety on Saipan recorded 13 drug-related arrests and 83 offenses in which drugs were involved.

Intelligence Gaps in Drug Abuse Data

Intelligence gaps concerning the threat of illegal drugs in the CNMI are numerous and wide-ranging. The government of the CNMI lacks the resources necessary to track trends in drug trafficking and abuse and indicates that the picture of the drug situation in the CNMI is incomplete. Most national data sets, including the Treatment Episode Data Set, the Drug Abuse Warning Network, the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, and the Monitoring the Future study, do not include the CNMI in their data collection, and other studies give the commonwealth only cursory mention, making quantification of the drug threat difficult.

CNMI officials report that the facilities, equipment, personnel, and training necessary to provide treatment and rehabilitation services to substance abusers in the commonwealth are inadequate. These authorities recognize the growing threat that illegal drugs pose to the commonwealth; however, many express frustration about the lack of attention that grant-awarding programs and the U.S. federal government devote to the illicit drug problem in the CNMI.

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) established a task force with local authorities in 1996 to combat illicit drugs in the CNMI. From its inception through February 2002, the DEA/CNMI Task Force arrested a total of 122 individuals and seized 25.0 kilograms of crystal methamphetamine, 9.8 kilograms of marijuana, 17.5 kilograms of heroin, 14.0 ounces of cocaine, and 1.4 ounces of LSD. DEA assigned a second special agent to the CNMI in June 1999.

In May 2000 the DEA/CNMI Task Force increased its efforts to prohibit pharmaceuticals bearing Chinese labels from entering the commonwealth. Such pharmaceuticals are not labeled in accordance with local or federal laws, making them illegal. Law enforcement authorities suspect that much of this supply has been obtained illegally.


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