A cross-border syndicate smuggling frozen meat from Hong Kong to mainland China has changed tactics in an unsuccessful effort to evade detection by law enforcement, customs officials said on Friday. The gang traded out their old barges for a Hong Kong-registered cargo vessel to act as a mobile warehouse, allowing speedboats to cross into the city’s waters and pick up their contraband. Senior Inspector Wong Chi-keung of customs’ syndicate crimes investigation bureau said the gang had also moved its “floating godown” from the city’s northwest to the southwest in an effort to avoid authorities. Previously, other syndicates stationed their barges in the northwest of Hong Kong’s waters to conduct their illegal trades. He revealed the change in tactics on Friday following the arrest of five crew members and seizure of 35 tonnes of frozen offal worth about HK$5.2 million (US$667,529), after customs intercepted the cargo vessel at about 2.30am on Thursday. The vessel’s location was discovered by two high-speed pursuit craft, about 900 metres from the sea boundary between Hong Kong and the mainland. But a speedboat coming from the mainland to collect cargo managed to escape in the direction of Zhuhai. The craft could have taken about 30 minutes to reach Zhuhai from the location of the vessel. The haul was subjected to a mainland health inspection as well as import tariffs of as much as 70 per cent, a law enforcement source said, adding that the consignment could have been sold for more than HK$8 million across the border. An initial investigation had suggested the cargo came from Brazil, he added. “The investigation showed sacks of frozen meat were loaded into the cargo vessel in Tsuen Wan in the afternoon and it manoeuvred around areas such as Cheung Chau and Lamma Island at night,” the source said, adding that he believed the gang had been operating for more than a month. The source said the gang had changed its tactics after local authorities stepped up operations against maritime smugglers, following the death of a police officer in a high-speed sea chase in northwest Hong Kong waters in September. HK$2 billion in frozen meat seized in anti-smuggling operation in Hong Kong The gang had also deployed at least five speedboats with lookouts to scout the area and ensure no law enforcement agencies were nearby. “When the cargo vessel was in position, high-powered speedboats were sent in from Chinese waters. A crane fitted in the vessel was used to load sacks of frozen meat into speedboats which then raced back to the mainland,” he said. The source said the syndicate had been dealt a heavy blow as its cargo vessel was impounded in Thursday’s operation. Customs officers were also searching for the owner of the cargo vessel in connection with the case. The five Hong Kong men involved, aged 38 to 56, were arrested on suspicion of exporting unmanifested cargo – an offence that is punishable by up to seven years in jail and a HK$2 million fine. They were released on bail, pending further investigation. Wong said they would continue their stringent enforcement actions and gather intelligence to combat such illegal activities.