Interpol extends long arm of the law

Friday, October 3, 2003

BENIDORM, Spain -- Crime knows no borders, not even Tonga's. The Pacific island kingdom with a population of 120,000 has seen its first murder in a decade.

But wee as Tonga is, Interpol says, it's one of 78 countries now hooked up to a new, high-tech, global database to track terrorists and other criminals.

Before, police around the world routed their requests through the Interpol office in that country and had to wait for an answer to come back from Interpol headquarters in Lyon, France.

The system now allows police agencies to have direct access to Interpol data, the organization's Secretary-General Ronald Noble said on Tuesday.

The database "will permit us to do something today that we weren't able to do two, three, four or five years ago," he said.

This week, International Criminal Police Organization, or Interpol, brought together more than 150 of its 181 members for a four-day annual assembly in this seaside resort in eastern Spain.

The closed-door talks, ending Thursday, focused on terrorism, organized crime, trafficking in people and other crime.

Interpol officials said the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States have transformed their organization into a 24-hour-a-day agency relying on Internet technology to allow police to directly access information on everything from stolen cars to DNA.

The new, heavily encrypted data system, called I-24/7, is the centerpiece of Interpol's drive to make better use of data bases and enhance cooperation between police at opposite ends of the world.

"There are no corners of the earth that are in fact out of the way any more," said program director Stanley Morris -- including Tonga, a sprinkling of 180 mostly uninhabited islands in the middle of the Pacific.

Tonga's sunny calm was rocked this year by a barroom brawl that resulted in a fatal stabbing.

"It was our first murder in 10 years," said Deputy Police Chief Taniela Faletau, Tonga's lone delegate to the Interpol assembly.

Now, Morris said, Tonga has the capability of accessing the data bases and operating the messaging system "in exactly the same way" as in Madrid, Paris and Washington.

Interpol was founded in 1923 with the goal of boosting cross-border police cooperation. Its name comes from the original telegraphic address.

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