A joint operation between Hong Kong and US authorities has led to the city's biggest seizure of cocaine.
Some 649kg of the drug, with an estimated street value of HK$760 million, was discovered in a shipping container that arrived from Ecuador on Wednesday, following a tip-off from the US Drug Enforcement Administration.
It eclipsed the previous record haul by more than 80kg.
Three local men have been arrested and customs believes it has smashed a syndicate which transports the drug from South America.
The haul was worth about HK$15 million in the underground wholesale market in South America, but could fetch HK$760 million in the city, one senior official said.
The container was on a list of shipments considered suspicious by US authorities and referred to Hong Kong customs as part of a joint operation codenamed 'Surfing Coke'.
The operation was launched in April after the number of cocaine seizures increased in the past two years. Customs sought help from the US Drug Enforcement Administration and Customs & Border Protection to identify suspicious cargo from South America.
Andrew Malanga, the US customs agency's Hong Kong attache, said a joint effort was the only way to fight international trafficking syndicates.
'In order for us to identity and dismantle these drug syndicates, we've got to join forces and we've got to pool resources,' he said.
The container, supposedly containing more than 1,000 pieces of laurel wood, was placed under surveillance after it arrived on a ship on Wednesday.
Inside the container, customs officers discovered 541 slabs of cocaine in 22 travel bags.
Each slab, weighing 1.2kg, was marked with a serial number and the Chinese character meaning 'cheap'.
'It is possible the character is used by a South American drug syndicate as a marking for the region it is destined for,' John Lee Cheung-wing, head of customs' drug investigation bureau, said.
Lee believes most of the cocaine was to be transported to a Southeast Asian country or the mainland.
The city's previous record cocaine bust came last year when 567kg of the drug, worth HK$600 million, was seized by police. The haul contained 32 times as much cocaine as the 30.1kg customs seized in the whole of last year. In the first six months of this year, seizures totalled 35.9kg.
Lee denied Hong Kong had become a drug transit hub, despite a series of high-profile drug seizures in recent months, including a record haul of ketamine last month.
'The seizures reflect our determination and confidence to fight against trafficking of illegal drugs,' he said, and promised to work more closely with South American law enforcement agencies.
The estimated value of the global cocaine market, in US dollars
- Up to 20.5m people use cocaine worldwide
Source: UN World Drugs Report