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Changes at Customs include a new boss and 3 additions to the K9 Unit

Smugglers beware! Treasury Department's Customs Division has a new trio of "super sniffers" on the prowl. The four-legged agents are the newest members of the Customs K9 unit, which monitors the territory's points of entry. Prior to the trio's arrival last month, Customs only had a set of 4 drug-sniffing dogs. But now they have Kely, specializing in sniffing out firearms; Kinga, trained to detect explosives; and Ruca, a golden retriever trained to sniff out illegal drugs. [photo: Blue Chen-Fruean]Newly appointed Chief of Customs, Li'a Moevao and deputy chief Juliano Falaniko. Customs recently acquired 3 new dogs and for the first time ever, we now have 4-legged agents that can detect explosives and firearms. [photo: Blue Chen-Fruean]

Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — The Customs Division of the Treasury Department is going through some changes that onlookers are describing as "positive" and a "sign of more great things to come."

Over the past two months, the two highest positions at Customs have been filled — one by someone from within the ranks and the other, a retiree of the LAPD — and the K9 Unit has acquired three new members.

Samoa News was able to sit down with Chief of Customs, Li'a Moevao, and Deputy Chief Juliano Falaniko last Friday, to speak briefly about some of the changes at Customs.

According to Falaniko, the trio of four-legged Customs agents arrived in mid-April, all from Daytona, Florida where the dogs — and the local handlers — undergo training. For the first time ever, American Samoa now has a set of dogs that specialize in detecting firearms and explosives.

Prior to their arrival, Customs only had 4 dogs, all trained to sniff out drugs. But with the addition of the new dogs — and their special skills — Customs now has a steady arsenal that can definitely help in the fight against illegal smuggling.

Samoa News understands the price for each dog varies, depending on what they're trained to do.

The drug sniffers are priced lowest, at about $10,000 each. The ones trained to detect firearms come with a price tag of about $11,000 while the ones specializing in detecting explosives are the priciest, costing about $12,000

But they pay for themselves — rather quickly. For example, if a dog alerts to an incoming package containing $50,000 worth of drugs, that's 5x more than what the dog was purchased for, meaning she just paid for herself within minutes worth of work.

"They are definitely worth it," Falaniko and Moevao said of the dogs.

Since the Customs K9 Unit was established in 2003 — with Falaniko being the first certified dog handler — the amount of drugs and illegal weapons that have been confiscated because of their work has added up.

The two original dogs, Kaiser and Lady, have since passed but the current team is showing no signs of slowing down.

Falaniko says they keep the dogs in tip-top shape by making them run 3 times a week — with their handlers — and maintain a special diet for them. Moevao said the routine exercises here are a continuation of the training both the dogs and the handlers went through in Florida.

Currently, all 7 dog -handlers at Customs are certified — each of them underwent and successfully completed a 6-week training course on the east coast.

Falaniko was the first local to go through the process and according to Moevao, Falaniko is the first Deputy Chief of Customs to be promoted from within the ranks.

"I am fortunate to have Falaniko working alongside me," he said. Of the dogs, the Chief of Customs said, "We are blessed and fortunate to have these additions to the K9 unit. This is the first time the territory has dogs trained to sniff out firearms and explosives and this will only serve to enhance our job as far as the government and people of American Samoa trying to eliminate drugs and weapons coming in."

When asked how he is adjusting to his new role, Moevao said, "I love it."

After spending 25 years as a cop in the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), Moevao has returned home. He said he's looking forward to what his new position has in store for him but he anticipates nothing but good things.