Police suspect smuggling syndicate at work behind Argentina ordeal

Organised crime network may be responsible for locals' paid trip to take antiques to Argentina

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 02 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 02 March, 2013, 3:52am

Police are investigating whether three Hongkongers who were detained by a gang of Chinese men in Buenos Aires for about a week over a broken vase, initially worth US$800,000, were recruited by a transnational syndicate to smuggle antiques to Argentina.

Officers were looking into the possibility of a syndicate luring young people to smuggle prohibited or stolen items from Hong Kong to South America, said Senior Superintendent Terry Wong Kin-wah, of the New Territories North regional command.

Yesterday, two of the victims - Rainbow Chan, 17, and Stella Au, 18 - returned to Hong Kong after the trio were released last Saturday. "The two girls are in good health but they feel exhausted," police inspector Madelene Leung Man-ying, who accompanied the pair back to the city, said at Chek Lap Kok airport.

The duo travelled to Argentina on February 6 with a 19-year-old man, carrying the vase and a Chinese painting. They were detained by five or six Putonghua-speaking men in a house after the vase was found to be damaged, and their passports were seized.

"They could walk around the house, and were even allowed to go out, but they were kept under surveillance," Wong said.

After their release, Argentine police seized a shotgun and a pistol with some bullets at the house, but made no arrests. The vase and painting were not found, Hong Kong police said.

Two Hong Kong officers are still in Argentina to assist local investigators and to find the 19-year-old man, who went missing after his release. No official records show he has left Argentina.

In Hong Kong, police are investigating his role and the source of the two items.

Officers arrested his girlfriend, a 17-year-old salesgirl, in Sheung Shui on suspicion of handling stolen property on February 22, days after Stella and Rainbow sent text messages through their cellphones seeking help from relatives and friends back home. She is released on bail.

The pair were enlisted through a social media network to transport the items in return for free round-trip tickets, food and accommodation, as well as HK$30,000 each, police said.

Local police sought help from Argentine police via the Chinese embassy in Buenos Aires and Interpol. Police said no payment was made for their release.