Drug-busting computer at Hong Kong airport foils smugglers

Record number of drug busts made at Chek Lap Kok in 2012, thanks to a system that picks out passengers likely to be smuggling narcotics

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 26 February, 2013, 4:40pm

Chek Lap Kok saw a record number of drug busts last year, the Customs and Excise Department said - and a new computer system at the airport is getting the credit.

The data-analysis system helps pick out high-risk passengers for inspection. It foiled 204 drug-smuggling attempts, compared with 140 in 2011 and 161 in 2010.

The record haul led to the arrest of 142 traffickers, and HK$151 million worth of illegal drugs were seized.

The computer system, which officers only began using last year, has also increased the volume of intelligence exchanged with overseas agencies in the fight against drug smuggling.

Superintendent Ngan Hing-cheung, of customs' airport command, said the system helped to pick out any patterns in smuggling operations.

"The analysis can help our frontline officers get a better understanding of the drug-smuggling routes and to pick up high-risk passengers for inspection," he added.

The analysis can help our frontline officers get a better understanding of the drug-smuggling routes and to pick up high-risk passengers for inspection

Previously, officers at the airport, which opened in 1998, had to go through the data themselves to establish any smuggling trends.

"The computer system is more accurate and effective," Ngan said.

Most of the drug couriers, or "mules", picked up at the airport last year were from West Africa or South America. They had been sent in groups to Hong Kong and drilled on what to say if caught, a senior customs official said.

"They were taught to tell the same story if intercepted by our frontline officers," the source said. "Members of one group might all say they came on business, while another group might claim to be here for sight-seeing."

Most of the drugs seized were cocaine and heroin, either concealed in body cavities or in the luggage.

Customs believe the drugs were destined to end up beyond Hong Kong. Much of the heroin found was thought to have been on its way to Guangzhou.

But a department spokesman insisted Hong Kong was not a drug transit centre.

"Hong Kong maintains strong enforcement against drug trafficking and, like other international trading and transport hubs, the heavy traffic and passenger flow poses challenges in combating the illicit activities," the spokesman said.

Investigators say the cocaine typically originates from South America, while most of the heroin comes from the "Golden Crescent" - which spans Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Both drugs are frequently sent first to West Africa before being smuggled into Hong Kong by a circuitous route through the Middle East or other parts of Asia, the department says.

The total detection rate for drug smuggling is also at its highest level in recent years, the department said. However, the computer programme has not been introduced at sea and land borders in the city.

Last year, customs made 478 drug busts, arrested 433 people, and seized a total of 1.4 tonnes of illegal drugs - 3.3 times the 325kg seized in 2011.