Hong Kong customs has confiscated HK$125 million (US$16 million) worth of ketamine concealed inside more than 160 spools of yarn shipped to the city from Pakistan in the largest maritime smuggling case of its kind in nearly a decade.
The shipment, which sat in a Kwai Chung container yard for about a month after arriving in the city in late July, was placed under round-the-clock surveillance by a team of plain clothes officers, but no one showed up to collect the 220kg stash.
Customs officers finally took possession of the drugs on Tuesday and arrested a 35-year-old woman who worked for a local logistics company in Fanling in connection with the seizure.
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Acting superintendent Philip Chan Siu-kau of the customs department’s drug investigation bureau on Thursday said he believed the international drug-trafficking syndicate behind the consignment had let the haul sit as it attempted to find a buyer.
The logistics company, he said, would be given instructions to collect the consignment and make a delivery if a buyer was found, adding the drugs could be either for local consumption or destined for overseas markets.
Senior Superintendent Lee Kam-wing said a report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime indicated that international drug syndicates had been stockpiling large volumes of narcotics in the countries where they were manufactured due to travel restrictions and border closures amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
To reduce the risk of interception by law enforcement agencies, drug syndicates had adopted a strategy dubbed the “merry-go-round”, he said.
“That means a large quantity of drugs was pushed out to sea by cargo, giving the syndicates time to find buyers and [the ability to] change the final destinations while the drugs were still at sea,” he said, adding that this method could help drug syndicates reduce their risk at a relatively low cost.
He said customs had observed this tactic used in several major drug-trafficking cases over the past 18 months.
Lee said the 220kg of ketamine was detected after sharing intelligence with overseas law enforcement agencies.
The container, declared as carrying spools of cotton yarn, was selected for inspection on July 30 after it arrived from Pakistan.
After an X-ray examination yielded suspicious images, the container was opened for inspection at the Kwai Chung cargo examination compound, where drugs were found in six out of 164 bags.
“A white, crystallised substance was found concealed in the plastic cylinders at the centre of 162 spools of cotton yarn,” Superintendent Man King-foon of customs’ ports and maritime command said, adding that it had tested positive for ketamine.
She said a total of 220kg of ketamine with an estimated street value of HK$125 million had been found.
Lee said it was the largest seaborne ketamine trafficking case detected by Hong Kong customs in nearly 10 years. Their previous largest ketamine haul was made in 2012, when they seized 412kg.
The woman arrested on Monday has been released on bail pending further investigation.
The latest seizure was one of the biggest anti-narcotics operations launched by local authorities in the past two months.
On Wednesday and Thursday last week, police arrested three suspected drug traffickers and seized HK$147 million worth of cocaine in two major stings.
On August 18, police arrested a 22-year-old university student and seized HK$200 million worth of heroin and crystal meth at a Cheung Sha Wan industrial unit.
According to official statistics, seizures of cocaine, cannabis, crystal meth, ketamine and heroin rose 63 per cent to about 3.68 tonnes in the first six months of 2021, from about 2.25 tonnes in the same period the year before. The seizure of Ecstasy also rose sharply – to 21,770 tablets, up 745 per cent.