How the suitcase smugglers work

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 05 February, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 05 February, 2003, 12:00am

A crime syndicate believed to have smuggled scores of illegal immigrants into Hong Kong inside suitcases wheeled through the Lowu checkpoint is known in the Indian and Pakistani communities as 'Mukha Airlines'.

Sources in the two communities told the South China Morning Post the syndicate had been operating for 18 months, successfully smuggling an average of 15 illegal immigrants each month.

In December, 24-year-old Pakistani illegal immigrant Raja Kamran was arrested as he was carried into Hong Kong from Shenzhen inside a suitcase. Immigration officials described the arrest as the first of its kind.

But a Post investigation has uncovered a highly organised syndicate, which has been ferrying mostly Indian and Pakistani nationals on mainland tourist visas into Hong Kong inside suitcases.

The syndicate is euphemistically known in those communities as 'Mukha Airlines', after the man who has been running it out of Shenzhen since mid-2001.

Mukha, an Indian national, is understood to be in his late 20s. He trains his 'pilots' - or suitcase carriers - organises the smuggling operation, screens his customers and handles the money. However, he leaves the actual smuggling to others.

The syndicate's usual method is to use large, tough cloth suitcases on wheels, which can easily carry a 70kg person and let in air to prevent suffocation.

Sources said Mukha favoured peak periods, such as the Lunar New Year, as the best times to smuggle clients.

An estimated seven million people will cross the border both ways between January 22 and February 10. Of these, 5.5 million are expected to travel through Lowu. But with the opening of 24-hour border crossing at Lok Ma Chau from January 27, one source said the syndicate could expand to that checkpoint too.

The source, with close professional ties to Hong Kong's Indian and Pakistani communities, said the passengers paid between US$250 (HK$1,950) and US$300 before being smuggled.

'They do it quite openly. After they get past Hong Kong immigration, the 'pilot' opens the suitcase and lets out his man among the crowds,' the source said.

'People who see this taking place look shocked or amused, but no one ever bothers to report it to the authorities.'

The source said he believed 'Mukha Airlines' had cornered a niche market for smuggling Indians and Pakistanis, as other gangs specialised in the far more lucrative mass smuggling of mainlanders into Hong Kong.

'Mukha is a gentleman. He is a nice guy and he is smart. He runs a tight operation - he has been running on average 15 passengers a month with his crew for a year and a half now.'

The source said Mukha always had five or six pilots on hand who could enter Hong Kong legally. Each one earned $500 a trip, while Mukha pocketed the rest.

Ninety per cent of his clients are Indians and Pakistanis who enter the mainland on tourist visas but cannot go to Hong Kong legally.

'Immigration officials say it's dangerous hiding inside luggage, that you might suffocate. That's not true. It's 100 per cent safe because it's all well-ventilated cloth luggage,' the source said.

'Passengers get past mainland immigration with no problem because they would just be legally leaving [Shenzhen].

'Then he goes to wait in the toilet between the checkpoints and waits for one of Mukha's pilots to show up. He then gets inside the suitcase and the pilot will carry him across the main bridge to the Lowu immigration counters. Usually there is no problem. They always choose busy hours and they prefer holiday seasons like the [Lunar] New Year, but their services are all-year round.'

Another source in Hong Kong's Indian community said the operation was temporarily suspended after Kamran's arrest, which exposed the method and put Hong Kong Customs and Immigration officers on alert.

'He [Mukha] may be eyeing Lok Ma Chau now with its 24-hour crossing. They just have to put the luggage on [cross-border] buses. It would involve even less physical carrying than at Lowu,' that source said.

On January 13, Kamran was jailed for 18 months after admitting charges in the Eastern Court of landing in Hong Kong without permission and breaching a deportation order.

His co-accused, Indian Pardeep Singh, 22, is facing a trial after he pleaded not guilty at the same court to aiding and abetting Kamran.

There is no suggestion that either man is connected to the syndicate discovered by the Post.