Nearly HK$320 million (US$41 million) worth of illegal drugs had been seized from air cargo mailed into and out of Hong Kong so far this year, as coronavirus travel restrictions forced drug dealers to use airborne shipments rather than human couriers, law enforcement sources said.
Figures obtained by the Post showed that 1.19 tonnes of illicit narcotics was confiscated from 259 shipments intercepted by customs officers at the airport’s cargo terminal in the first five months of the year, up 165 per cent from the 449kg discovered in 211 packages in the same period last year.
One source said the monthly average number of packages found containing illegal drugs jumped from 43 in the first two months of the year to 58 between March and May.
The source said the surge in seizures was linked to coronavirus border controls introduced in March. To combat the pandemic, Hong Kong has barred all non-residents from entry from overseas countries since March 25. The city has also required all returning residents, as well as visitors from mainland China, Macau and Taiwan, to undergo quarantine for 14 days.
“Because of the restrictions, trafficking activities involving drug mules have died down. No drug couriers have come to Hong Kong since mid-March,” the source said.
“As there is still demand for illegal drugs, traffickers have resorted to smuggling illegal drugs into the city as air cargo.”
Because of the restrictions, trafficking activities involving drug mules have died down. No drug couriers have come to Hong Kong since mid-March
A source on the increase in drug cargo
In the first three months of the year, on average 12 drug couriers, mostly inbound travellers, were picked up at the airport each month. Almost 140kg of drugs with an estimated street value of HK$114 million were found hidden in their suitcases or tied to their bodies. Some traffickers put their lives at risk by swallowing pellets of drugs.
The source said no drug traffickers were picked up at the airport in April or May.
“As the air passenger traffic has reduced significantly since March this year amid the Covid-19 pandemic, drug syndicates have no choice but to shift trafficking activities to air cargo, postal parcel and express courier channels,” a Customs and Excise Department spokesman said.
“Customs has been monitoring the development and has made swift adjustments to enforcement strategies and resources deployment to step up actions against drug-trafficking activities through these channels.”
The 1.19 tonnes seized included nearly 100kg of cocaine worth HK$104 million which originated from South American countries, but some of the containers carrying the drug were sent from Europe.
The source said customs officers had recently noticed an increasing number of cases in which cocaine was airmailed from the Netherlands.
Between Sunday and Wednesday, customs officers from the drug investigation bureau confiscated 38kg of cocaine worth more than HK$40 million hidden in three shipments airmailed into the city from the Netherlands.
About 28kg of the drug was found concealed inside powdered formula cans in two of the cases while the remaining 10kg was hidden inside 10 office chairs.
The huge haul also included 133kg of ketamine worth HK$69 million and 135kg of methamphetamine worth HK$88 million.
The source said ketamine was primarily mailed into the city from such European countries as Belgium, France and Germany while methamphetamine was smuggled from Southeast Asian countries.
In response to the trend, Hong Kong’s customs department has deployed more resources including upping manpower and the number of sniffer dogs to enhance inspection capabilities at the airport’s cargo terminals.
“The surge in the number of cases we’ve detected has demonstrated our intelligence operations and deployment have been successful,” another source said.
He said local authorities were also monitoring whether drug dealers would adopt other trafficking channels, such as sea routes, to smuggle drugs into Hong Kong.
Last month, customs officers found 217kg of cocaine worth HK$246 million hidden in an aircraft engine shipped from Ecuador in their biggest seizure of the drug so far this year.
A department spokesman said officers were closely monitoring drug-trafficking trends around the world and adopting effective enforcement tactics accordingly.
“Coupled with the application of advanced technology, customs clearance at all entry and exit points always remains a strong and powerful gate against drug-smuggling activities despite the wide variety of modus operandi, from hiding drugs on their bodies, to secret compartments in luggage, to cargo or parcel concealment,” he said.
“Under customs’ stringent enforcement efforts, the number of detections in 2020 has increased tremendously.”
In Hong Kong, drug trafficking carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment and a HK$5 million fine.
More from South China Morning Post:
- Hong Kong customs officers find nearly US$32 million worth of cocaine packed in jet engine shipped from South America
- Drug mules caught in Hong Kong taking bigger risks, swallowing cocaine pellets in greater numbers