Cocaine smuggling from South America is on the rise.
Drug cartels are using couriers, or 'mules', trained to carry up to 1.7kg of the drug in their stomachs for flights lasting 20 hours or longer.
In April and May alone, airport customs officers seized 20kg of cocaine with a street value of HK$22 million and arrested 14 suspected mules.
Between January and March, they made just two arrests and seized just 3kg of cocaine.
Most of the suspects were Colombian and came from the company's capital, Bogota, officers said yesterday at a briefing to explain details of the trade and their stepped-up detection efforts.
All but two of the 16 cases this year have involved drug mules, compared with only six of 16 cases last year.
A senior customs official says the couriers are trained to swallow and discharge drug pellets to learn the amount they can tolerate in their bodies.
Each pellet is 4cm to 5cm long and weighs 10 to 15 grams. Couriers are paid US$3,000 each to swallow pellets containing at least 1kg of cocaine. A kilogram of cocaine has a street value of HK$1.1 million.
'[Couriers] were given anti-diarrhoea tablets and ordered to take the pills before flying from their hometown,' the official said. 'They were also asked to wear cycling tights in case the pellets were accidentally discharged during their long journey.'
One suspect wore four pairs of cycling tights to prevent spillage. Most of them carried a bottle of lubricant since 'it helps them swallow any pellets they discharge by accident'.
Another was found to have swallowed more than 150 pellets containing more than 1.7kg of cocaine. The record was set several years ago by an African courier who was caught with 2.4kg of heroin.
The seizure of 23kg of cocaine equals last year's entire haul.
Frontline officers have been alerted about the drug-swallowing couriers, according to another customs officer. A risk-profiling system, which officers use to pick out high-risk cargoes and passengers for inspection, is helping identify the drug mules.
'Our analysis indicates that they usually come alone, without carrying check-in luggage,' the officer said. 'They are nervous and act suspiciously. Their actions are apparently sluggish because of the large amount of pellets in their stomachs.'
John Lee Cheung-wing, head of customs' drug investigation bureau, said: 'The successful interdiction of those drug trafficking attempts fully reflects our determination and effort on the anti-narcotics front.'
The sharp rise in arrests has prompted airport customs officers to be more alert, while narcotics officials will seek to improve co-operation with various South American countries, including Colombia. Most cocaine is smuggled from the 'Silver Triangle' of Peru, Bolivia and Colombia - the world's leading cocaine-producing region.
Yesterday police arrested an 18-year-old man and seized 5kg of cocaine in a raid on an industrial unit in Wang Kwun Road, Kowloon Bay.