Meat smuggling syndicate’s assets on chopping block after Hong Kong customs officers arrest 13, seize 160 tonnes of contraband beef

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Hong Kong customs officers have smashed a cross-border smuggling and money laundering syndicate after arresting 13 people and seizing HK$43 million (US$5.5 million) worth of frozen meat and valuables, with further seizures of as much as HK$147 million (US$19 million) in assets potentially in the offing.

The arrests took place on August 13 as part of an operation code-named “SeaShine”, when authorities snared about 160 tonnes of suspected smuggled frozen meat with an estimated market value of some $25 million.

Customs officers also seized about $18 million in cash and valuables, and froze bank accounts held by the alleged syndicate members with balances amounting to about HK$27 million.

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A law enforcement source said the department had used tougher organised crime laws to freeze the accounts, and was considering applying to confiscate the frozen HK$27 million along with a further HK$120 million in assets – namely, eight flats and three parking spaces believed to be linked to the syndicate’s money laundering activities.

The use of the Organised and Serious Crimes Ordinance to conduct a financial investigation against the syndicate came after enhanced enforcement actions failed to stop the maritime smuggling of frozen meat in recent months.

In the first seven months of this year, customs officers seized some 2,700 tonnes of frozen meat, 53 per cent more than 1,760 tonnes recorded over the entire period from 2009 to 2019. Customs seized about 1,050 tonnes of illicit meat in the whole of last year.

After an in-depth investigation, customs officers carried out a series of raids across the city in the early hours of last Friday after intercepting a barge carrying the 160 tonnes of frozen beef in Hong Kong waters.

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During the raids, officers arrested 13 Hongkongers, including the alleged mastermind and core figures of the syndicate. The HK$18 million valuables seized in the operation included cash, gold bars, jewellery and expensive watches.

All the suspects – 10 men and three women, aged between 40 and 65 – have been released on bail pending further investigation.

The biggest frozen meat seizure so far this year was made in June, when customs officers intercepted six barges and a mainland cargo vessel carrying more than 600 tonnes of illicit meat valued at HK$20 million

Another source said the lure of large profits had drawn gangs of maritime smugglers into running illegal logistics operations between Hong Kong and the mainland, despite the enhanced enforcement measures in place. He said the gangs could pocket more than HK$20,000 per tonne from the illegal enterprise.

The smugglers used barges as floating storage centres anchored in western Hong Kong waters near the maritime boundary between the city and the mainland, just off the airport’s third runway, which is still under construction, the source said. From there, bags of meat are loaded onto speedboats and cargo vessels bound for the mainland.

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Hong Kong authorities have stepped up patrols and enforcement actions after noticing a rise in cross-border smuggling activities in the city’s western waters, with criminals taking illicit meat to the coastal province of Guangdong to evade hefty mainland tariffs and stringent import restrictions.

On the night of January 21, three customs officers died in a collision between their craft and a cargo vessel while on patrol off the unfinished third runway. Officers found more than 1,000 boxes of frozen meat in the cargo vessel, but no crew members were found on board.

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