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Thursday, 8 June, 2000, 15:47 GMT 16:47 UK
Hong Kong's changing drug trade
Junk in Hong Kong bay
No more are drug cargoes just tied to the hull of a boat
By Damian Grammaticas in Hong Kong

Hong Kong used to be a major centre for drugs shipments between Asia and the rest of the world - but that is changing.

Drugs traffickers are finding new and simpler routes for their illicit trade

Law enforcement agencies say the city still provides much of the finance and expertise behind the scenes, but many shipments no longer pass through the territory.

Strict law-enforcement in Hong Kong itself means there is now a higher chance that consignments of drugs will be detected if they pass through its ports and airports.

Finance centre

"Hong Kong is receding in importance in terms of physically handling drugs" says Senior Inspector Peter Tarrant of Hong Kong Police's Narcotics Bureau.



The flow of heroin from the Golden Triangle is generally eastwards

Hong Kong Police Narcotics Bureau
"In the past the United States has labelled Hong Kong as a transhipment zone, but now the situation is different.

"But there are still a lot of figures here who have the connections and finances to put shipments together, and the contacts abroad to receive them. Often they put up the money but don't handle the drugs."

The major trade is in heroin and an amphetamine known as "ice" (or, more technically, methamphetamine) which is widely used in Asia, in particular in Taiwan and Japan.

The heroin originates in the Golden Triangle area of South East Asia. From the poppy-growing fields of Burma, Thailand and Laos, it is smuggled through Southern China and then on to its markets.

Seizures

"The flow of heroin from the Golden Triangle is generally eastwards," says Senior Inspector Peter Tarrant. "Europe is supplied by West Asia, the American supply tends to come from South America and Mexico, the Golden Triangle tends to supply Asia.


Japanese drug haul
A Hong Kong man was arrested after Japan's largest-ever drug haul
"But the old idea of Thai trawlers entering Hong Kong waters with a container of drugs tied underneath the boat, before passing them on to local fishermen, they're over now."

In the past year the Hong Kong police have made several major seizures. In November 1999, 70kg of heroin was intercepted close to China in the New Territories and a similar amount was seized in the same area in March 2000.

Both these consignments were thought to be heading for distribution in Hong Kong itself. Their combined street value was around US $20 million.

China is the source for much of Asia's "ice". Ephedrine, which is an important component of ice, is commonly used in Chinese medicines and is widely available.

Spreading the risk

In May Hong Kong Police arrested two men alleged to be packing the drug into a container for shipment to Australia.



Traffic through Hong Kong has become more difficult since it was handed back to China

"It shows Hong Kong people have the all important connections to ship the drugs abroad," says Peter Tarrant. "You've got to know who to send the shipments to so they can split the shipments up and sell them on."

Traffic through Hong Kong has also become more difficult since it was handed back to China. Hong Kong police now have the right to talk directly to China's Public Security Bureau.

Recent successes include the discovery of a factory in Huizhou in China where one and a half metric tonnes of ice were discovered.

And evidence of the new routes being opened up came to light when a shipment of heroin was uncovered at an off-loading point for coal supplies to a power station at Zuhai. In this case the traffickers had found a route that did not even use a port.

While Hong Kong still has an important role in the drugs trade it does not appear to be linked to particular Triad groups.

Shipments through Hong Kong are pretty risky, and backers can lose a lot of money if they go wrong, so they tend to be financed by groups of criminals who share the cost.

But Hong Kong is likely to continue providing much of the expertise, even if its role as a re-exporter declines.

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