Hong Kong customs and police seized nearly HK$1.9 billion in drugs in the first 11 months of 2019, a 74 per cent jump over the same period last year, with syndicates thought to be becoming more brazen as they assume the ongoing protests have undermined law enforcement.
As the anti-government demonstrations rolled into their seventh month, officials uncovered two record cases – a HK$245 million shipment of the terrorist drug “chemical courage” from Syria to Saudi Arabia via Hong Kong in November, and a HK$77 million crystal meth haul in cargo airmailed from Mexico to Hong Kong via Alaska this month.
The circuitous routing in both cases had caught the attention of authorities.
The amount of ketamine netted, mostly trafficked by air, also jumped 19-fold to 307.5kg – the largest surge among all types of drug, as the Customs and Excise Department warned of a smuggling spike to meet festive demand.
“We do not exclude the possibility that drug syndicates operated on the assumption that law enforcers in Hong Kong are busy because of the social unrest. Officers could have relaxed interceptions and investigations as manpower is stretched,” Superintendent Barry Chu Yin-min of the Customs Drug Investigation Bureau said in an interview.
“But we had actually stepped up enforcement by engaging in more intelligence exchanges and risk assessments. Especially during this tough period in Hong Kong, we must better guard our borders.”
Overall, customs seized a total of 1.9 tonnes of drugs in 739 cases between January and November, with a market value of HK$930 million, compared with HK$390 million in the same period last year.
There was a 57 per cent surge in the total quantity of drugs seized, although the number of cases fell by 10 per cent.
As for police, the force seized HK$940 million worth of drugs, including 653kg of cocaine, from January to November, meaning a total value of HK$1.87 billion for the drugs uncovered by both enforcement agencies, compared with HK$1.07 billion in the same period of 2018.
Last month, customs found 1.57 million fenethylline tablets in a container filled with furniture being shipped to Saudi Arabia from Syria, via Hong Kong and mainland China. It was the first time authorities had foiled a smuggling attempt involving the drug.
The pills contained the active ingredient amphetamine, reported to be widely used among Isis militants.
In the latest 110kg haul of crystal meth, also known as Ice, the largest seizure of its kind since 2010, the consignment was declared as plastic resin, which raised suspicions because the material is rarely imported from Mexico and is costly to deliver.
“Traffickers think that Hong Kong, as a financial and logistics hub, is more convenient for them to transship contraband items,” Chu said.
However, he dismissed the idea of the city being used as a drug smuggling route, despite the surge in seizures.
“You might think the drug situation in Hong Kong is serious as you only focus on our home city,” he said. “The drug problem is global. Other countries may net 10 times more than what we uncover.”
According to the UN’s Office on Drugs and Crime, Australian law enforcers netted 4.1 tonnes of cocaine and 5.6 tonnes of Ice in 2017.
The drugs seized by Hong Kong customs also included nearly 586kg of cocaine and 222kg of cannabis, representing increases of 164 per cent and 66 per cent respectively, year on year. The batches were for the local market and transshipments.
Chu said ketamine, a drug popular among local users more than a decade ago, was undergoing a resurgence because of an upgrade in quality.
“The new version of ketamine is in the form of crystal sugar instead of powder, and has better quality. The market price is also around seven times more than before,” Chu said.
“More ketamine has been airmailed into Hong Kong lately from Europe and Southeast Asia, with the amount surging particularly since October. They may be rushing to meet festive demand.”
Earlier this month, two 25-year-old men arriving from South Africa were arrested and later charged after they were found carrying HK$30 million worth of suspected cocaine in their suitcase with the haul wrapped as Christmas gifts.
Chu added that latest equipment upgrades for the authorities also boosted efficiency in detection as the newly introduced handheld narcotics analyser allowed officers to scan and spot drugs placed in objects without having to unwrap parcels.