Contraband products worth HK$540 million (US$69.7 million) have been seized in Hong Kong waters so far this year, 230 per cent more than the entirety of 2019, a senior customs official has said.
The latest figure was disclosed as customs and police officers made the biggest seizure of its kind in 12 years on Thursday, finding HK$80 million worth of goods, including iPhones, bird nests and abalone that were allegedly to be smuggled to Shenzhen by speedboat.
Senior Superintendent Mark Woo Wai-kwan, head of customs’ syndicate crimes investigation bureau, said he attributed the surge to the closure of the major control points due to coronavirus travel restrictions, which has forced smugglers to use the sea route rather than cars and human couriers.
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According to Woo, customs officers have confiscated HK$540 million worth of contraband items at sea and made 217 arrests in 66 cases. In the whole of last year, they seized HK$160 million worth of goods and arrested 86 people across 55 cases.
The total included Thursday’s seizure in the Sha Tau Kok frontier closed area.
That haul, with a street value of HK$130 million on the mainland, included hundreds of iPhone 12s, delicacies such as abalone and bird’s nest, cosmetic products, apparel and HK$42.7 million worth of electronic goods such as computer hard discs.
Bureau Assistant Superintendent Cheng Man-yuen said the consignment also included 550kg of suspected red coral, which could be used for Chinese medicine or making jewellery. He said they would check with the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department as to whether it was an endangered species.
Law enforcers began investigating the cross-border smuggling ring after noticing unusual activity at the typhoon shelter in the border town of Sha Tau Kok about two weeks ago.
Dozens of officers lay in wait in various observation posts on Wednesday night before a truck arrived at an outdoor car park in Kong Ha village at about 1am on Thursday.
Three seven-seater cars later drove into the car park, where boxes of goods were loaded into the vehicles from the truck. Two of the cars were then driven to the Shun Lung Street typhoon shelter, which is about 1.8km away from the maritime boundary between Hong Kong and the mainland.
Officers swooped into action as boxes of goods were being loaded from one of the two cars onto a speedboat at the typhoon shelter. Four to five workers then jumped into the boat, speeding in the direction of Shenzhen.
More than 100 boxes of contraband goods were found in the truck and three cars, but no arrests were made at the scene.
About 12 hours later, customs officers arrested three Hongkongers aged 36 to 46 in connection with the case. The men were the owners of the cars and also residents of the Sha Tau Kok frontier closed area.
“It is the largest smuggling case [at sea] tackled by Hong Kong customs in the past 12 years,” Woo said. He said the biggest such case was made in 2008, when HK$200 million worth of contraband products was seized in a cargo vessel.
He said the illegal smuggling operation was designed to avoid taxes that range from 20 to 100 per cent of the products’ value.
The senior superintendent said the investigation was continuing and further arrests were possible.
He said the department would seek help from their counterparts to track down the partner in the cross-border syndicate.