Hong Kong customs officers have arrested a local businessman after seizing more than HK$7.5 million (US$955,403) worth of contraband concealed in five excavators in a crackdown on cross-border maritime smugglers.
The new tactic used to hide goods was uncovered after officers intercepted a river trade vessel bound for mainland China near the sea boundary in the city’s western waters on Thursday night last week.
Four of the excavators were confiscated on board the vessel, while the fifth machine was found in an outdoor car park in Yuen Long, according to Superintendent Cheng Tak-hei of customs’ syndicate crimes investigation bureau.
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Cheng on Tuesday said the haul, mainly containing second-hand mobile phones and pharmaceutical products, was hidden in a secret compartment between the conveyor-belt wheels at the bottom of each excavator.
“It is the first time we have discovered this concealment method in an anti-smuggling operation,” Cheng said.
He added that he believed enhanced enforcement actions by Hong Kong and mainland authorities had led to cross-border smugglers using different tactics in recent months.
In an attempt to escape arrests, smuggling syndicates have used river trade vessels instead of speedboats and have also made use of their structural spaces to hide contraband.
“They keep changing their tactics and concealment methods in an effort to evade our detection,” he said.
About two weeks ago, customs officers confiscated HK$50 million worth of contraband products hidden in the ballast tank of a river trade vessel.
In the latest case, intelligence led them to identify the outdoor car park in Yuen Long, where illicit goods were concealed in five excavators. Officers then placed the site under round-the-clock surveillance.
On Thursday morning, four evacuators were transported to the cargo holding area in Yau Ma Tei and loaded onto a river trade vessel. The boat was intercepted near the maritime boundary at Hong Kong’s western waters as it was leaving the city on the same night.
After the contraband in the construction equipment was discovered, the captain of the vessel was arrested. He was released unconditionally after helping with the investigation.
At the same time, customs officers raided the Yuen Long site where the director of a local company, which was responsible for the shipment, was arrested on suspicion of attempting to export unmanifested cargo. They also found goods concealed in an excavator at the site.
The superintendent said the haul, which included about 5,000 second-hand mobile phones and pharmaceutical products of the same amount, was worth more than HK$7.5 million, while five excavators valued at HK$2.5 million were also seized in the operation.
“An initial investigation suggests the second-hand mobile phones were estimated to be worth HK$4.5 million, but they could be sold for as much as HK$16 million after repair and reconditioning,” Cheng said.
He revealed that the pharmaceuticals were worth about HK$3 million and most were for the treatment of cancer, adding that customs was still investigating the source of the goods.
Cheng said the investigation suggested the consignment was destined for Foshan in Guangdong province.
He added that he believed the illegal operation was designed to escape stringent import restrictions and tariffs imposed by mainland authorities.
So far this year, customs officers have confiscated HK$390 million worth of contraband products in 26 sea-smuggling cases. There were 47 cases involving the seizure of HK$520 million worth of illicit goods in the first half of 2021.
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