Speedboats were the vessel of choice for contraband but they were relatively easy to intercept, so criminals are now taking their booty by trading boats, making their exploits harder to detect Cross-border smuggling syndicates have switched their powerful speedboats for less conspicuous container ships in a bid to evade detection following a successful crackdown on contraband by Hong Kong customs. Assistant Customs superintendent Chan Tak-tai, head of the Joint Police/Customs Task Force, said that previously, speedboats had been the vessels of choice for smuggling syndicates. But he said a recent rise in the use of container ships had forced investigators to rethink their tactics and rely more on intelligence to collar offenders. Senior investigators revealed that following a recent internal reorganisation, customs had dealt several significant blows to crime cartels operating in and around Hong Kong waters. Seizures have included millions of dollars worth of illegal goods ranging from left-hand drive vehicles to medical equipment stashed aboard river-trade vessels bound for the mainland. Mr Chan said the authority had solved 35 cases in the first six months of this year and seized goods worth $128.8 million - already $44 million more than last year's total seizures of $84.8 million in 98 cases. Mr Chan said that previously syndicates had smuggled all manner of goods on a speculative basis but they now smuggled to order, using shell companies in an attempt to mask their crimes. Officers are allowed to stop and search speedboats in Hong Kong waters. If smuggled goods are found, it is often easy to prove the captain and crew knew what was on the boat. But investigators are forced to trail container ships, which by law must have manifests detailing their cargo, out of Hong Kong waters before they can prove any smuggling is taking place. It is also easier to smuggle goods aboard a container ship without the captain or crew knowing. When goods are traced back, their owners are typically shell companies. One incident not included in the reported figures was the seizure of $36 million worth of goods from three 12-metre containers aboard an outgoing Chinese trading vessel bound for Whampoa, Guangzhou, on July 17. Customs uncovered medical and hi-tech equipment and three cars behind rolls of paper inside the containers. Mr Chan said it was more difficult to make arrests in a container ship case because captain and crew could claim they had no knowledge of the true contents of the containers. 'The risk of using containers is high because it costs the syndicates dearly. Consignments usually are very substantial, a lot bigger than when they use speedboats,' he said. 'But the new tactics make our job even harder and forced us to review our operations.' He said customs first noticed a change in smuggling tactics when they seized $9.75 million worth of goods including mini-photocopiers, colour video monitors and medical X-ray films from two containers aboard a Chinese trading vessel on October 28 last year. The goods were stashed in 40 stacks of planks. This was followed by another significant container-ship seizure on January 12, when they found more than 9,370 unmanifested individual goods including computer hard disks, DVD Rom readers, digital cameras and audio players hidden inside a container aboard a Chinese trading vessel. The goods were found concealed inside 66 recycled paper cubes. 'These two significant smuggling cases prompted us to restructure our operation against sea smuggling,' he said. Mr Chan said authorities also had strengthened communication and intelligence-sharing with their mainland counterparts in combating smuggling. 'We have cut a lot of red tape,' he said. 'For instance, when we chase a vessel or speedboat to Chinese waters, we can inform our Chinese counterparts directly and join in the operation at once.' Mr Chan said that in addition to strengthening controls at ports and container piers, customs had streamlined its surveillance unit. Authorities also had added two powerful speedboats. Custom-made Success On April 11, Customs seized $28 million worth of unmanifested goods from an outgoing Chinese trading vessel. More than 1,620 cartons of the goods, including films, DVD players, MD recorders, walkmans, digital video cameras, batteries and antibiotics were found stashed inside three secret compartments of the vessel. The entrances to the compartments were covered with asphalt, sand and wooden pallets. On May 22, $57 million worth of unmanifested goods were seized from two containers loaded on board a Chinese trading vessel. The seized goods included 2.36 million VCDs, 1,386 sets of facsimile machines and 7,307 sets of computer motherboards. They were stored inside the containers behind bags of polyethylene. On June 9, $22 million worth of goods were found in two containers onboard a Chinese trading vessel. They include films, colour computer papers and displays, LCD monitors, digital video cameras, printer servers, mobile phones, magnetic optical disks and industrial bearings. The seized items were concealed inside the containers behind rolls of cloth.