The 26 mainland stowaways found inside a container on Wednesday night had agreed to pay an international human-smuggling gang more than $10 million for their two-week voyage to the United States, it emerged yesterday. Each had to pay snakeheads US$50,000 (HK$390,000), although none had yet paid any money, with the bill to be settled after they arrived in the US. Customs officers are now stepping up inspections at Kwai Chung Container Terminal to check if the syndicate - believed to include Hong Kong people - had arranged for more stowaways to hide in containers for the trip to Long Beach, California. It is the first time stowaways have been caught in Hong Kong and police are investigating if the mainlanders - all men from Fuzhou, in Fujian province, and aged between 16 and 36 - were loaded into the container in Hong Kong or on the mainland. About 180 mainland illegal immigrants have been arrested in the United States or Canada in 11 cases this year after they hid in containers in remote areas within the SAR that were loaded on to ships at the terminal. The migrants were discovered at 11.10pm on Wednesday during a routine inspection by Customs officers who became suspicious about the container, which was on the second level of a stack of five at terminal No 3. Hui Chiu-chun, divisional commander of Customs' containerised cargo division, said his officers became suspicious when the container entered the terminal at 4.30pm on Wednesday. Mr Hui said the detection was not based on any tip-offs, but the destination of the container and other clues which could not be disclosed prompted the officers to conduct the inspection. Twenty Customs officers arranged to remove and open the container after carbon dioxide levels inside were found to be almost five times higher than normal. 'The people inside were in a state of shock when the door was opened. But no one put up any resistance and one by one they were led out of the container,' Mr Hui said. 'The conditions inside were terrible. It was really quite dangerous inside the container for a voyage of about two weeks. The sanitary conditions were really terrible.' Six wooden planks on the floor covered ventilation holes. Mr Hui said the 26 men, who were being detained by police last night, were healthy and conscious when found. It is believed they had been in the container for about 10 hours. The Organised Crime and Triad Bureau, which is investigating the case, has had to arrange for an interpreter as the stowaways speak only Fujian dialect. Mr Hui said the container had not had any Customs declaration submitted as the vessel supposed to pick it up did not arrive in Hong Kong until 9pm yesterday. The ship, which came from Europe, is expected to stop in Taiwan before heading for the US. Mr Hui said Customs would step up inspections as human smuggling was expected to increase as the weather became colder. He believed illegal immigrants picked Hong Kong as a transit point because they thought it was easier for them to escape detection in the busy container terminal. Detectives are investigating the relevant parties involved, including the shipper, the shipping agent and the container company, in their efforts to track down the snakeheads. It is understood the companies involved did not have any links with the previous 11 human-smuggling cases involving Hong Kong. Police have also alerted their US and mainland counterparts about the case. Premier Zhu Rongji, who was visiting South Korea yesterday, said international co-operation was needed to crack international human-smuggling gangs. Secretary for Security Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee said she was not worried about Hong Kong becoming a transshipment centre for human smuggling as law enforcers had the ability to combat such activities. Director of Immigration Ambrose Lee Siu-kwong is expected to raise the issue with Fujian officials during a scheduled meeting in Fuzhou today. A spokesman for the Customs and Excise Department said it would continue taking vigorous action to prevent Hong Kong being used as a stepping stone for human smuggling. Customs stepped up inspections at container terminals and intelligence exchange and co-operation with the industry operators after a series of human-smuggling cases were detected in North America in January. More than 33,800 outbound containers have been selected for inspection since January based on Customs' risk assessment system. The US Consulate issued a statement commending SAR authorities on the case.