Hong Kong customs sees drug smuggling by mail up fourfold with only 30 officers checking

Cup noodles, scrolled paintings and computer parts among items used by traffickers to help sneak their illicit goods through postal services

PUBLISHED : Monday, 12 September, 2016, 12:03am
UPDATED : Monday, 12 September, 2016, 12:03am

Cup noodles, scrolled paintings, and computer parts: these disparate items are among the latest tools drug traffickers used to smuggle their goods through Hongkong Post and that customs officials confiscated this year.

No drug is being seized in greater quantities than Gamma-butyrolactone (GBL), whose haul has skyrocketed: from 135kg last year to 358kg in just the first eight months of this year. GBL, a chemical commonly used as a cleaning solvent, was listed as a controlled item for import and export after it was found to be used locally as a “party drug”. It can leave one with impaired judgment or in a coma.

Customs’ Ellis Lai Lau-pak said drug smugglers were using “any hollow space” of any kind to conceal their illicit goods.

In the first eight months of this year, the number of drug smuggling cases via postal services was up 19 per cent year on year, to 450. The total value rose 6.6 per cent year on year to HK$96 million.

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These figures match recent trends. In the past two years, the number of drug smuggling cases via post surged fourfold from 131 in 2013 to 525 last year. The value was up almost the same magnitude, from HK$25 million in 2013 to HK$117 million last year.

Lai said an uptick in cross-border e-commerce and in online shopping have led to more parcels leaving and entering the city. “This was seen as an opportunity to smuggle goods,” he said.

As for seizures this year, drugs took up 78 per cent of customs’ smuggling cases, with ivory and firearms distantly following. More than 90 per cent of drug cases were transacted through air mail. Another 8 per cent involved the smuggling of endangered species such as ivory, dried seahorses and live turtles. Three per cent of cases related to firearms or ammunition, and 2 per cent dealt with counterfeit and pirated goods.

From June to August this year, a total of 12.9kg of cocaine sent by post was seized in the city, and all of this amount originated in South America, mostly from Brazil.

This included a case of 320g of cocaine hidden between two paintings that were sent as scrolls from Brazil to Hong Kong. Lai described it as the first time Customs spotted such goods used for transporting drugs in recent years. In June, another 1,200g of cocaine valued at HK$1.2 million was found inside a computer motherboard mailed from Brazil

Food items are a popular cover for traffickers. Last July, customs officials found 1.2 kg of methamphetamine or “Ice” stored in the seasonings packets of 23 cup noodles labelled “for student-use, snacks” on a parcel mailed from the mainland for re-export from Hong Kong to Australia. The seized drugs had a market value of HK$360,000.

Lai described as an “old trick” the smuggling of drugs by placing them in candies’ fillings. Customs officials seized 930g of ice stored inside 89 chocolate pieces that were sent from Hong Kong to Australia last April. “We do not rule out the possibility that these were manufactured in Hong Kong,” Lai said, noting no arrests had yet been made.

He added it was “incredibly difficult” to spot as only around 30 customs staff check smuggling activities through the postal service. According to Hongkong Post, international mail traffic, including both letters and parcels, totalled 175 million pieces last year.

He added it was difficult to arrest people who were involved in this kind of smuggling because they were not in actual possession of the parcels, unlike those who could be immediately arrested when found to have prohibited items on their person when crossing borders.

Customs is going to review whether more staff are needed to tackle smuggling. Lai said the expertise of officers and current X-ray scanning machines were adequate to keep illegal activities in check.