Stay away: letter writing by South American inmates in Hong Kong is deterring drug trafficking, says prison chaplain

Father John Wotherspoon launched campaign to stem flow of drug mules from Latin America after he launched a similar initiative targeting smugglers from Africa

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 16 July, 2016, 5:24pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 16 July, 2016, 11:08pm

A drug mule from Colombia, who was sentenced to 16 years and eight months in jail on Friday, wrote a letter in Spanish calling for people in his country not to carry drugs to Hong Kong.

“Do not risk your lives travelling to Hong Kong, to China or any other country ... Here in Hong Kong, we have many Colombians in prison,” Cesar Sanchez said. “There are sad families because of us … Let’s clear Colombia’s reputation about drug trafficking,” it read.

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Letters like this are part of a campaign launched by Father John Wotherspoon, a Hong Kong prison chaplain, whose aim is to raise awareness in South America and dissuade other drug mules thinking of coming to Hong Kong.

“They are typically men from 30 to 60 years old, whose families are desperate to get money because they have to pay school, medical fees or something similar,” Wotherspoon said. Most are not aware of the heavy sentences they could face in Hong Kong.

The chaplain is working with Spanish-speaking volunteers. “We get letters from prisoners and we post them online, on Facebook and on websites, or share them with the media in South America,” Wotherspoon said. “We have also tried to involve the families of the inmates, although there are some safety concerns in pushing for their repatriation.”

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The campaign follows a similar initiative launched by Wotherspoon in 2013, which is believed to have led to a decline in the number of smugglers from Africa, particularly Tanzania, travelling to the city.

Wotherspoon said the campaign targeting South Americans, which started in the middle of last year, had already had a positive impact. Around that time, about 20 Colombians were on remand at Lai Chi Kok Reception Centre. About a week ago, there were only five, according to the chaplain.

Many became drug mules for some of the most violent cartels in South America, with families often being threatened.

The Correctional Services Department said it did not maintain statistics on the number of South Americans in prison for drug trafficking.

Wotherspoon calculated that between 50 and 100 people from Latin America, most from Colombia, were serving sentences in Hong Kong.

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Sanchez, 21, who was the guardian of a younger sister diagnosed with lupus in 2014, is now one of them. After borrowing money to pay for her medication and not being able to clear the debt, he was offered an alternative: carry 1,719 grams of cocaine to Hong Kong. In exchange, he would make up to US$35,000. The drugs could have fetched over HK$2.7 million on the Hong Kong market.

Sanchez, who worked as a butcher in Colombia, was arrested at Hong Kong International Airport in October last year.

The campaign which Sanchez joined has helped some drug mules have their sentences reduced, but he was not one of them.

“I am very grateful that some courts have acknowledged the tremendous contribution of the campaign ... I am a bit confused as to why some get discounts and others don’t. I think their efforts should be recognised,” Wotherspoon said.

The chaplain would like to see South American countries reaching prisoner transfer agreements with Hong Kong so people like Sanchez could return home. There are currently none.

A spokesman for the Security Bureau said: “The transfer of sentenced persons to their place of origin, by returning them to an environment free of language and cultural barriers and where their friends and relatives can visit regularly, is conducive to their rehabilitation. It is the government’s policy to facilitate such transfers.”

The bureau declined to comment on whether agreements with Latin American countries were possible.

Official statistics showed that cocaine seizures in the city have more than doubled – from 130kg in 2014 to 341kg last year. From January to April this year, authorities seized 146kg.

Those arrested for trafficking dangerous drugs also increased – from 1,297 in 2014 to 1,438 last year. In the first four months of the year, 487 people were arrested.

“I am hoping the campaign can be kept up. And of course that governments in South America can do more in this regard,” Wotherspoon said.

International law enforcement sources told the Post last year that Mexican and other Latin American drug cartels had a “significant” and “expanding” presence in this region.