Hong Kong customs has seized HK$1.2 billion (US$154.3 million) worth of contraband products, the biggest haul in its 112-year history, intercepting the goods in 24 shipping containers on a vessel bound for mainland China. The record bust marked another milestone in a continuing crackdown on rampant sea smuggling, following the recent death of a senior police inspector in a speedboat chase that put the focus on how criminals have taken to transporting contraband goods on cargo vessels. The massive haul of high-value goods – ranging from dried seafood and products made from endangered species to luxury handbags and electronic gadgets – was valued well above the HK$1.08 billion worth of contraband customs officers seized in 211 sea smuggling cases in 2019 and 2020. In the first 10 months of this year alone, customs has seized HK$2.07 billion worth of such goods in 81 cases. The latest consignment was large enough to fill a multilevel department store, a law enforcement source said. If sold at its intended destination on the mainland, it could earn sellers more than HK$3 billion. Emotional security chief blasts mockery of officer’s death at sea Two Hongkongers were arrested in connection with the massive seizure, made about a fortnight ago. Customs officials only released details of the operation on Friday because they needed time to process the haul, as well as to verify the endangered species with help from the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department. Senior Superintendent Rita Li Yim-ping, head of customs’ syndicate crimes investigation bureau, said the Guangdong-bound shipment had been stockpiled in Hong Kong for about a month amid the crackdown on cross-border smuggling with speedboats. “Because of stringent enforcement actions by local authorities, smugglers had to resort to using such cargo vessels rather than speedboats in an attempt to escape detection,” she said, adding that officers would monitor whether this would become a new criminal trend. Li added they would continue to carry out stringent enforcement actions in the city and exchange intelligence with mainland and overseas law enforcement agencies to combat smuggling operations. “No matter where smuggled goods come from and are destined for, we will spare no effort to fight such illegal activities,” she said. Police seize 4 speedboats hidden along Tuen Mun coast amid sea smuggling crackdown The vessel, carrying more than 80 containers, was intercepted east of Hong Kong waters near the sea boundary with the mainland on October 14. The contraband products were found hidden in 24 containers declared as carrying polypropylene. The others carried general cargo as stated. None of the crew members were arrested. Superintendent Cheng Man-yuen of customs’ marine enforcement group said officers decided to check the shipment because the import of such a large volume of polypropylene as declared was “unusual”, given the mainland had its own manufacturing capabilities. The haul included high-value food such as dried fish maw and sea cucumber, as well as parts harvested from endangered species – American ginseng and the dried fins of giant guitarfish, a type of ray. There were also cosmetic items, electronic goods, luxury watches, clothing and handbags from designer labels, and Japanese sake, worth thousands of Hong Kong dollars a bottle. Handbag labels included Gucci, Hermes, Louis Vuitton and Fendi, while the luxury watches came from brands such as Chopard and Rolex. High-end graphics cards, designed for cryptocurrency mining and costing at least HK$7,000 each, were among the electronic products seized. 17 arrested in crackdown on maritime smuggling gangs “The whole haul is estimated to be worth HK$1.2 billion. It is the biggest-ever seizure of contraband products in all kinds of operations in the history of Hong Kong customs,” Li said. Her colleague, Superintendent Cheng Tak-hei, said the smuggling operation was designed to evade stringent import restrictions by mainland authorities and tariffs of up to HK$2 billion. “The seized items are subject to mainland import tariffs of as much as 160 per cent of their value,” he said, adding the consignment could be sold for more than HK$3 billion across the border. Investigations are still under way, with the possibility of further arrests, according to Cheng. On October 19, customs officers arrested a 39-year-old woman who rented the office for a local company which had arranged the shipment. The following day, a 56-year-old man, in charge of the company, was also detained. The two suspects have been released on bail pending further investigation. Last month, Senior Inspector Lam Yuen-yee and three colleagues were thrown overboard when their vessel was rammed by a turbocharged speedboat they were trying to intercept in Chinese waters – just a few hundred metres away from the sea boundary with Hong Kong. Her body was recovered two days later in the waters off Lantau Island after a massive search-and-rescue operation. The fatal incident has since prompted Hong Kong and mainland authorities to step up the battle against cross-border maritime smuggling.