Hong Kong customs officials seized HK$35 million (US$4.5 million) worth of gold bars during the course of “Operation Melter”, a recently wrapped, four-week smuggling crackdown that has raised concerns about possible money-laundering by criminal organisations in mainland China.
The 71 gold bars, which weighed 1kg each, were discovered in six separate seizures involving trucks arriving at the Lok Ma Chau and Man Kam To border checkpoints between September 3 and 27.
In three of the cases, 32 bars of gold were found hidden in the cabs of the trucks, while another 30 were seized from tailor-made waistbands and specially designed pockets of jeans worn by two drivers.
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“The design of the two waistbands is the same. We believe the two drivers collected the cargo from the same syndicate to bring it into the city,” divisional commander Wong Ching-fu of custom’s land boundary command (Lok Ma Chau) said on Friday. The waistbands were sewn with tailor-made pockets that could store one gold bar each.
Wong said the two drivers were selected for body searches after frontline officers noticed them acting nervous and walking abnormally. One was found to be carrying 20 gold bars.
The pair were among six truck drivers, aged between 32 and 64, arrested on suspicion of importing unmanifested cargo – an offence that carries a maximum penalty of seven years in jail and HK$2 million fine.
With gold prices soaring, customs busts attempt to smuggle HK$10 million in bars from mainland China
The remaining nine gold bars were found taped to the legs and hidden in the trouser pockets of a third driver.
The four-week operation saw customs officers step up inspections at control points last month after noticing a rapid rise in gold prices, which they believed could trigger cross-border smuggling of the precious metal.
The price of gold has surged from US$1,500 (HK$11,600) an ounce earlier this year to about US$1,900.
Rita Li Yim-ping of the customs department’s syndicate crimes investigation bureau noted gold was sold at a higher rate in Hong Kong than on the mainland, offering a significant incentive for would-be smugglers.
“The city’s price of gold [per kilogram] is tens of thousands of dollars higher than the price in mainland China,” she said.
She said her officers were investigating whether the same syndicate was behind all six drivers arrested.
“We will also investigate whether the suspects were used by crime syndicates to smuggle gold in order to launder crime proceeds,” Li said.
She said Hong Kong customs would continue to exchange intelligence with mainland and overseas authorities and carry out financial investigations to combat money-laundering activities.
According to the Customs and Excise Department, there were no cases of gold smuggling in the first eight months of this year. The last known instance in which gold bars were smuggled into the city took place in December 2017.
For the whole of that year, there were 18 cases involving 315kg in gold bars worth HK$98 million. Customs officers had seized 117kg of gold worth HK$38 million in 2016.