Hong Kong police and customs get new US$21.5 million sea weapon to fight smugglers

Clifford Lo
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Hong Kong police and customs get new US$21.5 million sea weapon to fight smugglers

Hong Kong authorities will soon be equipped with a new HK$169 million (US$21.5 million) weapon to fight seaborne crime in the city’s waters.

The arrival of the first of 12 fast-pursuit craft follows a 177 per cent surge in the amount of contraband seized from maritime smugglers last year.

The value of the new boats is HK$22 million higher than the HK$147 million worth of high-valued goods confiscated in police crackdowns and the force’s joint operations with customs against cross-border smuggling activities in 2018. The year before, HK$52 million worth of goods was seized in such operations.

In the first three months of this year, police confiscated HK$17 million worth of goods from seaborne smugglers.

Law enforcement sources said the 12 new boats were bought to replace the existing fleet, some of which have been in service for about 20 years.

Four of the vessels were manufactured in mainland China for the Customs and Excise Department, and two of those will come into service as early as this summer.

The other eight are being built in the United States and are expected to be deployed by the police in the first quarter of next year.

According to the technical specifications in the Marine Department shipbuilding tender, the four Customs craft are capable of topping 55 knots (100km/h) and are equipped with a water jet propulsion system that assures good manoeuvrability and emergency crash stop operation.

“The vessel shall stop within three [vessels’] length from maximum speed without damage or risk for the crew,” it said.

The sources said every aspect of the new boats, such as speed and technology, were better than the existing fleet of fast-pursuit craft.

They said speedboats used by local gangsters to smuggle upscale goods to the mainland would be the main target of the new vessels.

The sources said at least three triad-controlled syndicates were the key players behind such cross-border smuggling, and they are hired by underworld shippers who want to avoid hefty mainland taxes and import restrictions.

“Their operation is just like a logistics service between Hong Kong and the mainland,” one source said. “Of course, it is illegal, but it is lucrative.”

To attract their clients, the source said gangsters offer their services with a compensation package, which pays out if the goods are seized by authorities from Hong Kong or the mainland.

He said the smugglers could pocket tens of thousands of dollars per boat trip, with a cargo of 100 boxes of contraband. The goods include mobile phones, bird’s nests, computer parts, electronic products and endangered species.

In Hong Kong, waterfront sites in Lau Fau Shan, Sai Kung and Lantau Island have been used as loading points by smugglers, who usually operate during high tide.

“To avoid detection, they run a one-stop service and hire their own triad members to work as porters and lookouts,” another source said.

Smugglers also choose secluded coastal areas as their loading sites, making it difficult for police and customs officers to carry out surveillance. If officers move in, they have enough time to dump the goods on the shore and flee in speedboats.

Last year, gangsters even used a yacht to ship contraband near the maritime boundary between Hong Kong and the mainland, the source said, before loading the goods onto speedboats headed for the mainland.

Customs officers seize US$16.7 million of smuggled goods in Lunar New Year raids

One of most notorious smuggling hotspots is in the Lau Fau Shan waterfront area, from where speedboats can leave Hong Kong waters in a few minutes.

Earlier this year, Marine police also noticed a new smuggling route in which smugglers loaded contraband onto speedboats at the Lei Yue Mun waterfront before shipping the cargo out of the city. Following the crackdown, they moved their loading site to Shau Kei Wan typhoon shelter.

“While speedboats and fishing vessels are a common means used for smuggling activities between Hong Kong and the mainland, smugglers are constantly changing their loading and unloading spots and take different routes hoping to escape detection,” a Customs spokesman said.

Police said officers from the marine police region would continue to closely liaise with local and overseas law enforcement agencies for intelligence exchange, while conducting joint smuggling operations as necessary.

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