Revealed: how Hong Kong became the crystal meth corridor linking mainland China’s producers to the lucrative Australian market
Hong Kong is an all-too-convenient centre of a crystal meth corridor straddling the Asia-Pacific – and ways to stem the flow have proved elusive
In drug enforcement circles it is generally accepted that for every consignment of illicit narcotics stopped and seized on its way into a country, nine more make it through.
That worrying statistic takes on even greater significance when you apply it to one of Asia-Pacific’s most active and lucrative drug-smuggling routes – the crystal meth corridor linking the mainland, Hong Kong and Australia.
Last week , the Australian Federal Police seized a shipping container packed with the powerful stimulant methamphetamine – also known as “Ice” – as it arrived in Sydney from Hong Kong.
It was the biggest haul of liquid meth the country has ever seen and led to the arrests of two men and a woman from Hong Kong and a mainland associate.
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The scenario is all too familiar for Australian authorities. Since 2006, at least 27 Hongkongers have been arrested trying to smuggle HK$15 billion worth of meth into the country. And the amount of the drug seized at Australian ports and airports having arrived from the SAR is almost triple that from the rest of the world.
And it’s not just Down Under. One of Hong Kong’s most notorious drug kingpins, Wong Chi-ping, who ran a massive meth smuggling operation into Indonesia for years, is on death row in a Jakarta jail after being caught red handed with more than 860kg of the drug last year.
The arrests of Wong and several members of his gang were a big success for Indonesia, but when you apply that nine multiplier to the HK$569 million worth of meth seized in that operation, the the task facing authorities everywhere is mind-boggling.
For Jeremy Douglas, the regional representative for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, a significant part of the problem is intelligence sharing between Asian countries.
Reluctance to share intelligence between Asian countries encouraged organised crime groups to “capitalise on the hesitation”, Douglas said, adding they ere essentially able to traffic relatively easily from the region because of it.
“There needs to be a significant increase in cooperation between countries but at a practical level sharing of information on the groups that are often operating out of multiple countries at any one time,’’ he said.
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Wong is also emblematic of Hong Kong’s deep ties to an international drugs trade that has led officials in Australia and Indonesia to warn of a narcotics “epidemic”. With its open and sophisticated banking system and status as a free port, the SAR is an ideal trading platform for narcotics.
The fact that it sits next door to Guangdong – which is widely acknowledged as the world’s biggest producer of both natural and synthetic ephedrine, the main component in crystal meth – makes it a drug smuggler’s dream.
A UN report last year identified Hong Kong and the mainland as key players in the burgeoning meth trade, citing law enforcement authorities in the Philippines and Australia. And corruption within China’s pharmaceutical industry is a key factor in Guangdong becoming the production centre.
Chris Dawson, chief executive of the Australian Crime Commission, whose organisation aided the record meth bust, told the Post he had “no doubt that mainland China and Hong Kong are key source areas for the majority of ice and precursor chemicals that reach Australia”.
In response, late last year the commission posted a “narcotics analyst” in Hong Kong for the first time .
Professor Paul Dietze, one of Australia’s leading alcohol and drug epidemiologists from the Burnet Institute in Melbourne, said: “The reality is there are big seizures like this that occur every now and then and rarely do we see any major impact on supply at a street level.”
Criminals are addicted to pushing meth, particularly Ice, down under because it is a lucrative market. Meth was cheap to produce, was a popular drug and criminal gangs can sell it for a substantial profit, said Professor Ann Roche, director of the National Centre for Education and Training on Addiction at Adelaide’s Flinders University. She estimated street dealers could earn HK$5,500 per gram for the stuff sold.
Some of the seizures have offered an insight into the quirky and less creative means by which criminals hide illegal consignments in shipping containers. Meth has been uncovered in shipments of children’s toys, print cartridges, shampoo and coffee beans, amongst other things.
Australia also ha one of the biggest meth-using populations in the world on a per capita basis, and Australians paid a lot more for it than other places in the world, according to the UN’s Douglas.
“There’s enormous money to be made,” and “there will be ongoing attempts to feed that” market, he said, adding the problem stemmed from global trade.
“You have lots of production taking place nearby in Asia, and you have a lot of two-way trade, so it’s relatively easy. You can see the modus operandi that criminals are using was to disguise it in goods that would be traded into Australia.”
The scale of Australia’s meth problem meant it was hard to know the true picture, Douglas said, because with illegal drugs “you are always operating in the shadows.
“You can never really get a great picture of it. It’s not declared trade and no one really knows how much is being produced, precisely”.
Accounting for the meth seized, Geoff Munro, national policy manager for the Australian Drug Foundation, said that in recent years methamphetamine users had switched from the powdered form of the drug, known as speed, to crystals because it delivered a bigger, “better” hit.
However, despite alarm from the Australian government, which is trying to grapple with the problem, experts dismissed claims of a national “epidemic”, saying the data doesn’t back up official claims.
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“The best statistics we’ve got [show] the actual proportion of the population using Ice has been stable for the past five or six years, at around 2.1% of the population [250,000 people] having used methamphetamine in the past 12 months,” Munro said.
Responding to the meth situation, the Australian government announced A$287 million (HK$1.6 billion) funding last December for improved treatment, and after care, prevention and support, education and community support to reverse the impact of crystal meth.
Watch: China seizes three tonnes of crystal meth
If the funding did pan out and was rolled out effectively, Dietze said, the scheme could work.
“The big problem is the range of treatments available for people who use methamphetamine are not all that necessarily effective and there is a lack of standardisation across the country,” Dietze said.
The multimillion-dollar funding is a turning point for policymakers, moving away from a reliance on the law enforcement approach that drug experts say has failed to stem the flow.
“On the law enforcement front, we have officers and former police chiefs investigating drug crimes saying that we cannot arrest our way out of this problem, and police are saying it’s not going to solve this problem – and that’s the drug problem across the board,” said the Australian Drug Foundation’s Munro.
“Because it’s physically impossible for customs and police to identify the complete supply.”
The UN’s drugs and crime Asia lead said the sheer penetration of production on an industrial scale meant it was virtually impossible to tackle the problem with law enforcement alone.
“No matter how good or how big the police force is – I know it’s not necessarily about quantity but about quality of policing – but the scale of the industry in China is so big: the chemical, pharmaceutical industry,” said Douglas.
“What is going on in southern China, where there are more people than there is in all of North America, you’re dealing with a huge policing task.”
He said systems were not in place to protect borders.
The UN Office on Drugs and Crime will release a follow-up report in the next few weeks on the impact of drugs across Asia.