Illegal drugs worth US$70 million seized at Hong Kong airport cargo terminal in six months as coronavirus pandemic forces smugglers to change tactics

Illegal drugs worth more than HK$550 million (US$70.5 million) were seized at Hong Kong airport’s cargo terminal in the first half of this year, as coronavirus travel restrictions forced international syndicates to use alternative smuggling methods, customs said on Wednesday.
Latest figures showed 1.47 tonnes of illegal drugs were seized from air cargo packages mailed into and out of the city in the first six months of this year, up 127 per cent from the 645kg found in the same period last year. The value of the drugs also rose 225 per cent from HK$169 million over the same period last year.
Superintendent Lau Ching-lung, head of customs’ air command air cargo group, said he believed the surge in drug seizures was linked to coronavirus border controls introduced in March.
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In response to a huge drop in passenger flow at Hong Kong International Airport since March, he said, the Customs and Excise Department had adjusted its strategies and resources and enhanced inspection at the cargo terminal.
To combat the pandemic, the city has barred non-residents from entry from overseas countries and also required all returning residents, as well as visitors from mainland China, Macau and Taiwan, to undergo quarantine for 14 days.
Superintendent Eddie Lee Man-lok of customs’ drug investigation bureau said they observed that drug syndicates had changed tactics because of the quarantine requirements for arrivals since March.
Instead of traffickers smuggling drugs using passenger flights, parcels were now being sent via air cargo.
He said there was a dramatic surge in the detection of illegal drugs from express parcels mailed into Hong Kong in recent months.
“We believe drug dealers might have been worried about delays in international postal services because of the pandemic, which led to longer delivery times for drug parcels and a heightened risk of being busted,” Lee said.
To increase their chances of success, Lee said, the syndicates tried to smuggle large quantities of illegal drugs into Hong Kong in small batches repeatedly.
Lau said officers had to stay vigilant as dealers looked to smuggle drugs into Hong Kong under the guise of packaged food and daily commodities.
“We need to make bold assumptions, and verify them meticulously,” Lau said. “We observed the methods criminals use in hiding their drugs have grown in complexity, peculiarity and diversity.”
At the cargo terminal, customs officers seized 350kg of illegal narcotics from 137 inbound express parcels in the first half of this year. This represents a 243 per cent rise in the number of express parcels and a 563 per cent increase in weight of the seized drugs compared with the same period last year.
Between January and June this year, customs officers intercepted 24 inbound general air cargo shipments and seized 218kg in various kinds of drugs. Customs also seized 167kg of illegal narcotics from 101 inbound packages via postal services.
“Customs also found drug trafficking syndicates attempted to use goods such as food, furniture and industrial materials as camouflage to make detection more difficult,” Lee said.
Among the seizures this year, nearly 80 per cent of the 206kg of cocaine came from Europe and Africa, while Europe also accounted for 85 per cent of the 118kg of ketamine. Of the 152kg of crystal meth, 70 per cent came from Southeast Asian countries while 87 per cent of the 122kg of cannabis was mailed from North America.
Lee said customs had always adopted an intelligence and risk management approach to combat such illegal activities.
“We will closely monitor global drug trafficking trends, continue to exchange intelligence with local, mainland Chinese and overseas law enforcement agencies, and adopt effective strategies to stop any drug trafficking activities,” he said.
In Hong Kong, drug trafficking carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment and a HK$5 million fine.
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