Swooping on smugglers

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 27 December, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 27 December, 2008, 12:00am

Marine police 'owls' patrol in the dead of night to catch hi-tech criminal gangs shipping contraband goods

At this time of year, when traditional carols are in the air, many people will no doubt be thinking of a silent night as the time to sleep in heavenly peace. But for Roger Mak, any mention of a silent night will always conjure up totally different associations.

For the senior police inspector in charge of the task force's Marine Outer Waters District, the images most likely to come to mind are of long, dark hours hunkered down behind rocks on a remote beach or crawling through tangled undergrowth while being bitten by insects, buffeted by cold winds or soaked by a tropical downpour. That is because one of his main duties as the leader of a highly trained anti-smuggling unit is to organise nocturnal operations and take part in stake-outs designed to detect illegal activities along Hong Kong's coastline and apprehend the perpetrators.

'For obvious reasons, not a lot of smuggling activity takes place during the day, so we mainly operate at night,' said Inspector Mak. 'By day we are like Dracula staying away from the light, but when night time comes around we are more like owls.'

He said the planning for any night mission had to be meticulous. It is especially vital to build up sufficient local knowledge, to be aware of key landmarks and to realise that terrain could look very different during the hours of darkness.

'On shore, we need to memorise obstacles such as tree stumps and hollows that could cause injury when we chase smugglers during an ambush,' said Inspector Mak, who studied biotechnology at Liverpool University before becoming an officer with the Hong Kong police.

The other thing is to recognise just how quiet the night is once away from the nearest village and, consequently, how easily an inadvertent sound from the anti-smuggling team could jeopardise a long-planned operation.

To prevent confusion, unnecessary injury or the risk of anything going wrong, it is important to have a clear command and control structure and a strong commitment to discipline.

'Operating at night can be dangerous, so each officer needs to know precisely what to do in any situation,' Inspector Mak said. 'Thankfully, my guys are very well trained and we operate as a very tight unit.'

It can be particularly hazardous if the pursuit of suspects leads to a high-speed chase at sea.

Most smugglers have specially adapted craft with high-powered outboard engines, capable of skimming across Tolo Harbour and around inshore islands at speeds approaching 100km/h. They generally operate without navigation lights and, if necessary, are ready to resort to dangerous evasion tactics to avoid arrest.

Tolo Harbour, with its many secluded bays, is the area where most smuggling takes place, Inspector Mak said. There are dozens of boats up to 50 feet in length, which are easily capable of carrying a luxury car or loading more than a tonne of contraband goods on a moonless night.

Stopping them requires great patience allied with speed of thought and action, but Inspector Mak is quick to dispel any idea that the job involves the kind of reckless heroics or death-defying stunts seen in the movies.

'While we do everything within our capabilities to stop and apprehend smugglers, this is not a crime worth dying for, and it would be irresponsible for my men to take uncalculated risks that could harm themselves or others,' he said.

Despite the necessary precautions, accidents do still happen. Over the years, several marine police have been injured during high-speed chases and smugglers have lost their lives in pursuit of the financial rewards that a successful mission can bring.

They may be surreptitiously moving anything from electronic goods, watches, computer chips or X-boxes to high-fashion garments, cosmetics, precious metals or prized Buddha pine trees.

Since Hong Kong and the mainland operate independent legal and taxation systems, the temptation is to exploit an advantage in the different prices, tax rates and availability of items by illicitly transferring goods in one direction or the other.

Occasionally, rare or completely unexpected items are intercepted. For example, a consignment of 2,000 scaly anteaters, or pangolins, was discovered being brought ashore in sheltered Hoi Ha Wan in Sai Kung West Country Park. And a raid led by Inspector Mak in October resulted in the seizure of 1,200kg of silver bars worth more than HK$4 million.

Any such operation may start long in advance with a tip-off from a member of the public or with information picked up through intelligence gathering.

Detailed daytime reconnaissance will then follow. This may involve patrols of hidden inlets and out-of-the-way hamlets to look for evidence, such as discarded wooden crates or recent tyre tracks.

Inspector Mak said his team may interrupt the occasional lovers' tryst or a stake-out by wildlife enthusiasts but, as a rule of thumb, if people were out in remote areas during the hours of darkness, it was a fair bet they were up to something suspicious. When a possible smuggling location has been identified, which can take several days, the next step is to go over the details and check equipment. In addition to a torch, water bottle, maps, binoculars, raincoat and camouflage clothing and maps, each officer carries a first-aid kit and mosquito repellent. Depending on the location, terrain and intricacies of the operation, the team may also need sophisticated surveillance devices and to take special guns and ammunition.

'We also rely a lot on our hearing,' Inspector Mak said. 'For example, my officers can tell the difference between the sounds a taxi, van and light goods vehicle engine make. At sea, they can tell the difference between the engine sounds of fishing boats, small freighters and the boats smugglers use.'

He added that good preparation meant knowing about any lookout systems their adversaries might rely on, as well as the latest monitoring and communication devices likely to be used. It is important to keep in excellent physical shape to be able to spend hours statue-still yet mentally alert.

'I make sure I eat a balanced diet, exercise and sleep well,' said Inspector Mak, who has been with the police for 11 years. 'Often our work involves long periods of inactivity simply watching and listening, followed by a burst of action as we carry out an ambush, so we don't want to be chasing after smugglers with full stomachs.'

Night work has long been a regular part of the routine. While he can expect to be on duty for a basic 48 hours per week, the roster is far from structured.

'Like my colleagues, I put in a lot of overtime because we can work 16-hour shifts and, depending on the operation, sometimes even longer. I try to make the most of my time off by getting enough rest and co-ordinating with my family's schedules.'

This is the end of From Dusk to Dawn. Moving up will return next week.

Be prepared

A typical operation includes several days or even weeks of reconnaissance

Preparation involves briefings, tactical planning and assembling the right equipment

Concealment for stake-outs can entail shifts of 10 to 15 hours stretching over days or weeks

Rest days and compensation leave follow long periods on active duty