'Don't copy me:' African drug mules jailed in Hong Kong write home to stem flow
A letter-writing campaign started by a priest could be responsible for a drop in Tanzanian heroin couriers attempting to enter Hong Kong
As Hong Kong's authorities struggle to stem the flow of drug mules arriving in the city, an elderly prison chaplain has started a campaign to make potential couriers think twice - and it appears to be working.
A resident of the city for 29 years, Father John Wotherspoon is the driving force behind a recent initiative to encourage convicted drug smugglers to write letters home and spread awareness of the perils of bringing narcotics into Hong Kong.
It comes at a crucial time, as international drug syndicates from Latin America and Africa - two key sources of drug couriers - expand their presence in Hong Kong and the region.
Watch: How do you stop drug mules coming through Hong Kong? This priest has an answer
"The drug mules were being misinformed and tricked. They were being told it's easy to get into Hong Kong, and if you do get caught it's only two or three years in prison," said the 67-year-old priest from Brisbane. "Actually, it's very difficult to get into Hong Kong. And if you get caught it's, minimum, eight or nine years - and that's if you plead guilty.
"So I said to them, for heaven's sake, tell your family, friends, churches, politicians and media - tell them [drug couriers] to stop coming to Hong Kong," said Wotherspoon.
According to the priest, most African inmates in Hong Kong are Tanzanian drug mules, who at one point last year were arriving at a rate of five or six per week.
However, once the letter-writing campaign was picked up by the Tanzanian media, the stream of couriers immediately dried up.
In the past seven months, only three Africans, including one Tanzanian, have been arrested for drug smuggling at the city's points of entry, said Wotherspoon, who commended the writers for their bravery in the face of threats from crime gangs.
A letter from one inmate reads: "All the riches I thought I could make drug trafficking were just illusions. The only thing real is that I am behind bars and paying for my failure to think twice.
"If you are reading this, regard yourself lucky because you are hearing it from the horse's mouth … Drug trafficking does not only send people to prison, but it destroys futures, breaks apart families and takes lives. There is nothing more precious in life than freedom and you will only realise it when your freedom is taken away."
Hong Kong is used by crime gangs as a gateway in and out of China, as the penalties for drugs-related offences do not include capital punishment.
Earlier this month, a top African drug baron with operations in Hong Kong was arrested in Dar es Salaam. Ali Khatibu Haji - popularly known as Shikuba - is well-known to the Tanzanian inmates in Hong Kong and is mentioned in their letters, which Wotherspoon has posted on his website. (http://www.v2catholic.com)
Although it is not entirely in line with prison regulations, Correctional Services allowed Wotherspoon to publish the letters online, deeming them an effective and economical way to crack down on drug smuggling.
African mules who arrive in Hong Kong often carry heroin sourced from Pakistan, with the drugs hidden inside their luggage or bodies. A smuggler can carry up to 90 capsules - about 1.5kg of heroin - in their stomach, although the risk of the latex balloons exploding, with fatal consequences, is high.
Early last year, one in every three drug mules managed to evade detection while entering Hong Kong, Wotherspoon said.