Beware drug lords targeting Hong Kong domestic helpers and asylum seekers as mules in narcotics trade
Prison chaplain wages war on criminals taking advantage of vulnerable communities in city to traffic drugs, and calls for more awareness on issue
Migrant domestic workers and asylum seekers in Hong Kong are being tricked – some through lovers they met online – into delivering or receiving parcels filled with drugs, in the latest tactic used by dealers to recruit local mules.
About a dozen domestic helpers and refugees were arrested between January and May this year after unwittingly following instructions from partners or friends, said Catholic priest Father John Wotherspoon, a prison chaplain.
“There’s been about a dozen people, most of them women, some men – Filipinos, Indonesians, Africans – [who] have been tricked to deliver or collect parcels of drugs and they’ve all been arrested for that.”
Wotherspoon said those arrested had been charged but had pleaded not guilty and were awaiting a trial date.
A barrister, Leung Chun-keung, said no bail was given “since the charge is very serious, warranting a very long term of imprisonment”.
The cases come amid a steady increase in arrests of non-ethnic Chinese people in Hong Kong for drug offences in the last four years.
Police arrested 377 non-ethnic Chinese people last year for serious drug offences, a 60 per cent increase from the 237 detained in 2014. The number was 327 in 2015 and 352 in 2016. This year’s figure could rise further as 158 people were already arrested between January and April.
Hong Kong Customs, which deals with drug trafficking, said it arrested 109 non-Chinese people in major drug cases in the first half of this year, compared with 190 in the whole of last year. Eight of the arrests this year and last year were of asylum seekers with torture claims.
Authorities did not give further details on the nationality of these arrested individuals.
Another prison chaplain, who declined to be named, said it was “rare” for domestic workers in the city to be involved in drug trafficking within Hong Kong.
It was more common to hear of Filipino women conned into being international drug mules, with Nigerians in the Philippines wooing them and offering them money to bring the drugs to Hong Kong, he said.
“Others were sent to some other country and then on their way home, they passed by Hong Kong where they dropped off the drugs,” he said.
Philippine consul Paul Saret said about 40 Filipinos – some 30 of them women – were serving long jail sentences in Hong Kong’s prisons for drug trafficking. Many were tourists passing through the airport when they were caught.
One Filipino man was arrested earlier this year carrying at least 1kg of cocaine at the airport, he said.
Leung, who represented a Guangzhou woman who was on Thursday acquitted of drug trafficking after spending three years behind bars, said cases of people being tricked “took many forms, bringing Ice or ketamine out of China to other countries or bringing in heroin or cocaine from Malaysia, Thailand or Brazil to Hong Kong”.
But Saret said he had visited one female domestic helper in prison earlier this year who received a parcel that was addressed to her and was arrested after that.
“The consulate regularly puts out reminders to our nationals: don’t be lured by any suspicious transactions whether coming from the Philippines or in Hong Kong and if someone whom you do not know sends you something.
“Even if the post office or [courier company] DHL is calling you, you should ask who’s the sender. Don’t just pick up the parcel when you don’t know the sender,” he said.
Hong Kong is home to 380,000 foreign domestic workers – almost all are women and the majority are Filipinos, followed by Indonesians. As of September last year, there were just over 7,200 refugees waiting for resettlement to another place as Hong Kong does not grant asylum.
In cases of drug dealers looking for local mules, Wotherspoon said he believed they were originally from the African continent and were now living in Hong Kong. They had several modus operandi.
They would befriend domestic helpers and refugees in person or online, in some cases developing romances with them. Then they would ask the victims to help them receive or collect parcels at the post office or courier companies.
“The Filipino women and Indonesian women tell me they are so love-starved that if the men show them attention, their brains ‘turn off’,” Wotherspoon said.
In other cases, the drug dealers who were in relationships with women from the same communities as the domestic helpers and asylum seekers would ask their partners to coordinate the activities.
Wotherspoon said in conversations with inmates in prison, they would recount how “a friend would ask them: ‘Can you help me? Can you please collect something for me at the post office?’ They thought they were just helping a friend,” he said.
In a letter written to the priest and seen by the Post, a 34-year-old Filipino woman said her boyfriend of two years, whom she met on Facebook, asked her to pick up a parcel from Tai Kok Tsui post office. He told her it contained a hair straightener from Colombia.
She was arrested after collecting the drug-filled package.
Wotherspoon also related the story of a man who was asked by a friend to go with him to a courier collection place. The place was closed as it was a public holiday so the friend asked him to return alone the next day. The man was then arrested when he did so.
Wotherspoon has since 2013 been working on a “name and shame” project, identifying and exposing drug lords operating through and in the city to help drug mules facing trial, including the Guangzhou woman. She had been caught at the airport on the way to Malaysia in 2015 with the drug, Ice, sewn into the lining of her backpack.
The 71-year-old priest, a long-time resident of Hong Kong, said he had already warned the domestic helper and refugee community of the parcel scams but asked authorities to publicise the issue further.
In Hong Kong, trafficking in a dangerous drug carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment and a HK$5 million (US$640,000) fine.
The force said it was working closely with the consulates of different countries and NGOs to raise awareness of romance scams targeting domestic helpers. In most cases, fraudsters would get to know victims online and use various excuses to get them to transfer money.
Police have also launched an anti-scam helpline for ethnic minority residents in the city.
By dialling 18222, callers can report scams or get related information in seven languages, including Tagalog, Bahasa Indonesia and Hindi.
Advice from police:
- Be cautious when making friends in cyberspace
- Do not casually disclose your personal information and photos online
- Do not respond to suspicious requests online, such as borrowing money, meeting in private places or sending private photos
- Adopt proper privacy measures to protect your personal information while online
- If in doubt, call the anti-scam helpline 18222 immediately