Judiciary Police: Macau not a drug trafficking portal

Friday, April 29, 2011
Issue 1295, Page 2 – 4
Word count: 2751
Published in: Macau Daily Times

By Poyi (Natalie) Leung

Macau’s position as gateway to mainland China along with the increasing number of budget airline flights, has raised concerns that MSAR may be used as a transit point for drug trafficking. Smuggling routes that originate in the Golden Crescent, primarily Afghanistan, the largest opium producer in the world may increase to include Macau.

The Judiciary Police (PJ) handled 1,627 drug related cases between 2000 and the end of March 2011. The majority of the seizures were heroin with a street value totalling more than MOP 58 million.

In 2010, the PJ reported 191 arrests, the highest number of drug-related cases since 2001.

“There has been an upward trend since the first ever case of drug smuggling by means of internal concealment was intercepted in Macau in 2006,” said PJ deputy director Chau Wai Kuong.

However, he believes that Macau has not yet become a point of transit for the transportation of illicit drugs into the mainland, considering that the number of related cases each year is still ‘comparatively lower than in the US, mainland China, the Philippines or Thailand’.

There are no reliable estimates regarding the size of the global drug trade. The most recent data was disclosed back in 2005 in the United Nations (UN) World Drug Report, which suggested that the world drug market generated USD 321.6 billion in 2003.

In the 2010 report, it is estimated that the opiate trade made an annual turnover of up to USD 65 billion, USD 55 billion for heroin alone.

In Afghanistan, which overtook the Golden Triangle as the world’s primary heroin producer in the early 21st century, a conservative estimate suggests that Taliban insurgents generated some USD 125 million per year in profits from the local opiate trade in the past several years, the UN report revealed.

The PJ deputy director, who formerly led the criminal investigation department, told the Macau Daily Times that since 2006, most illicit drug smuggling attempts into Macau were by means of internal concealment through the airport and the majority of these ‘drug couriers’ were males and African nationals.

Nevertheless, he is certain that Macau has remained a drug consumption market rather than a place to produce, since no illicit drug manufacturing establishments were ever discovered in the territory.

Migrant workers still safe

Some years ago drug syndicates began to recruit couriers of different nationalities from Southeast Asia and have turned to women, and including imported workers.

Between 2009 and 2010 in particular, Chau said a large number of the couriers caught were Filipina, who either hid the drugs in concealed baggage parts or swallowed them before arrival in the hopes to avoid police detection.

In the face of this, he said the Macau Government tightened the requirements for granting visa-on-arrival to Philippine nationals and the situation has since improved.

Although cases of recruited migrant workers as drug couriers were previously intercepted, the PJ deputy director reiterated that there were no signs that indicated that drug syndicates have begun to increasingly recruit ‘candidates’ among Macau’s ‘blue card’ holders.

Elderly people could also be the targets of drug syndicates. Chau recalled that an 86 year old woman from Vietnam was apprehended downtown some years ago for allegedly carrying two kilograms of heroin in her luggage.

The “sweet reward” is usually the main temptation behind the deals, especially when a person is having financial problems or is in debt. Chau said the drug mules are generally offered USD 2,000 to USD 4,000 (MOP 16,000 – MOP 32,000) each time they transport illegal drugs.

He also disclosed that it is quite common to find that suspects are HIV positive, another reason as to why they were willing to take the risk and make a ‘quick buck’ and leave as much money as possible to their families.

Past cases have shown that these mules would fly low-cost airlines mainly from Malaysia to Macau, where they excreted the carefully wrapped drugs (mostly heroin) that would afterwards be collected and taken to coastal cities in Guangdong mainly Guangzhou and Shenzhen, or enter the mainland directly from the Macau airport and excrete the drugs after arriving.

The drugs seized in each case over the past couple of years were generally quite notable in terms of quantity, as much as 1,000 and up to 4,000 grams.

“Drug transit cases have increased”, Chau admitted, but stressed that the PJ together with the Public Security Police and Customs Service will continue to combat this illegal activity and strive to prevent Macau from becoming a transit market for drug trafficking.

‘The lowest’ penalties

According to the law No. 17/2009 «Forbidding illicit production, sale and consumption of narcotic and psychotropic drugs» which took effect on September 10, 2009, a suspect convicted of drug trafficking could face a jail sentence between three to 15 years.

Chau said that past cases have shown that smuggling around one to two kilograms of illicit drugs would usually result in an imprisonment of nine to 12 years.

Yet, he admitted that the penalties for drug offences in Macau are “the lowest” when compared to mainland China and Taiwan, where the penalty is death, and also Hong Kong where the maximum sentence is life imprisonment.

Nevertheless, he disclosed that the PJ has decided to follow Hong Kong counterparts’ recent action and is drafting a proposed law to add three new types of synthetic substances, ‘derivatives of piperazine’, ‘synthetic cannabinoids’ and ‘derivatives of cathinone’ into the illicit drug table of the 17/2009 law.

These synthetic substances have gained popularity overseas especially in Europe as psychotropic drugs. The Security Bureau of Hong Kong said their harm is ‘commensurate with other psychotropic drugs such as ecstasy, cannabis or amphetamines’.

According to the bureau’s narcotics division, the effects after abusing derivatives of piperazine include vomiting, headache, anxiety, palpitations, insomnia, confusion, irritability and tremors as well as spasms.

Synthetic cannabinoids, commonly known as K2 or Spice, will produce effects such as hallucinations, increased agitation, elevated blood pressure and heart rates and seizures, whereas derivatives of cathinone or Meow Meow may influence abusers’ consciousness, harm their memory and blood circulation, make them behave erratically and also cause hallucinations and delusions, the division added.

Moreover, the PJ will install the first body scanner at Macau airport’s arrival hall this year, in an attempt to provide a safe and simple fast-track security search on suspected drug mules, instead of sending them to hospital for internal x-rays.

Chau stressed that the technology would be used only if suspects agreed to receive scans.

“A sniffer dog is not necessarily able to detect the drugs [if they are inside a person’s body cavity]. The machine won’t only have a deterrent effect but will also enhance the efficiency of internal body searches,” he told the MDTimes.

Party drugs common

While older drug users in Macau are usually addicted to heroin, the PJ deputy director pointed out that psychotropic drugs such as ketamine and ecstasy also became prevalent around 2000 and are mainly used by young people in entertainment establishments.

He said heroin is usually seized in large quantities each time whereas ketamine is seized frequently but in a small quantity throughout the year.

Cocaine, which is mostly grown and processed in South America, is less common in the territory due to its high selling price.

Crack cocaine, one of the two main forms of cocaine besides cocaine hydrochloride powder, is currently sold at MOP 2,400 to MOP 3,000 per gram on the black market, and heroin and ketamine at MOP 450 and MOP 300 per gram respectively, according to Chau.

The black-market prices of illicit drugs, he added, are also determined simply by the fundamental rule of supply and demand.

Peer influence

The central registration system for drug abusers launched by the Social Welfare Bureau (IAS) in 2009, shows that there were 673 people who were dependent on one or multiple types of illicit substances in 2010, an increase of 7.5 percent from 626 in the previous year.

The 2010 report shows that the average age was 31.9, with the youngest being 13 and the oldest 86. Males accounted for three quarters (76.8 percent) and nearly half of the total drug abusers lived in Macau’s northern district.

In addition, about 174 of these registered drug abusers were below 21 years old and of them, about 11 did not yet reach the criminal liability age of 16.

It has also been revealed that the average age of first drug use was 21.4, mostly ketamine (29.6 percent), followed by heroin (27.2 percent) and then amphetamines or ‘ice’ (15.1 percent).

Each of these users spent an average of MOP 5,809 on drugs each month and most of the time they consumed them at their own home or discos/karaoke lounges.

Peer influence has been found to be the most notable cause for drug abuse, and the desire to ‘alleviate pressure’ was the second most reported reason.

The Association for Rehabilitation of Drug Abusers of Macau (ARTM) currently has 17 people aged between 24 and 60 receiving treatment in its men’s facility and 7 aged between 20 and 50 in its recently opened women’s facility in Coloane.

A few years ago the association checked in a 14-year-old heroin user, the president, Augusto Nogueira told the MDTimes.

He believed that the number of drug users in Macau is ‘much more’ than what the central registration system shows, with many not caught by police or stepped forward to the IAS or other non-governmental organisations to seek help.

Heroin was the most commonly used drug among his patients but Nogueira said he has been receiving an increasing number of people in their early 20s having ketamine problems.

While boredom seemed to be the reason for some older people to turn to drugs, Nogueira told the MDTimes that the young ones were mainly driven by “curiosity, an urge to experience what it’s like and a desire for excitement”.

“Macau has a lot of temptations and nightlife entertainment, we need to face the reality,” he said.

Hang around for karaoke

Nogueira said Macau doesn’t provide enough space for young people to ‘release their energy’ such as sports grounds or recreational areas for them to go after school.

“They feel very limited in their choices of entertainment and that’s why they go to karaoke lounges where anything could happen inside those small rooms,” he added.

Not only does the government need to increase inspections in these establishments, he believed it’s also the owners’ and staff’s responsibility to keep an eye on the patrons’ behaviours and ‘not just let them do whatever they want’.

Nevertheless, Nogueira stressed that prevention starts at home. “The parents have to be open to their children, talk about the effects of drugs and don’t make it a taboo subject.”

Despite the seemingly lenient anti-drug law in Macau, he doesn’t agree that it has made drug offences a challenge in the territory.

“For example Hong Kong has life sentences and the mainland has death penalty, but the drug problems continue,” he said.

“Sometimes kids use drugs because of family problems, they have no fault. It’s not helping to send them to prison but a special facility should be built where they can continue to study while receiving rehab treatment,” he pointed out.

In addition, Nogueira reiterated that it’s necessary for the SAR Government to carry out comprehensive and in-depth research of the current situation of drug abuse, which has been lacking in the city.

Many of the individuals who completed the rehab programs in the ARTM are able to find a job after leaving the facility. “Just because they used drugs doesn’t mean that they can’t be skillful,” he said. “As long as they have the will they can resume a normal life and be useful to society.”

Filipinos being used

The use of its nationals as drug mules has become a growing concern for the Philippines in recent years. The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) has repeatedly appealed to all Filipinos, especially overseas foreign workers, to avoid accepting offers from individuals or groups to carry illegal drugs in their luggage or internally when going abroad.

On March 30, China for the first time executed three Philippine citizens (one man and two women) who were found guilty of trafficking at least 4 kilograms of heroin in Xiamen and Shenzhen.

Smuggling more than 50 grams of illicit drugs is punishable by death on the mainland.

President of the Philippines Benigno Aquino III reportedly said in his three letters sent to the Chinese Government appealing for clemency that while the three were convicted of drug trafficking, they could also be considered “victims of unscrupulous recruiters and drug traffickers and of a society unable to provide enough jobs at home”.

According to the Philippine Consul General to Macau, Renato Villapando, “execution is a vivid lesson to the couriers and their families, and is a proof that the money they are offered is never worth losing their lives”.

The consul general added that the drug mules should recognise that drug trafficking is a “scourge” to society and should also be aware that “nothing can justify the harm that illegal drugs bring to their lives and families”.

In face of an ‘increasing number of drug trafficking cases involving Filipinos’, the Philippine president issued an executive order on April 18 to take direct control of the Philippine Centre on Transnational Crime (PCTC), an agency which coordinates with other governments to combat transnational crimes.

An inter-agency taskforce comprising nine entities including the DFA, Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency, Bureau of Immigration, National Bureau of Investigation and Manila International Airport Authority was also created in February to prevent Filipinos from being used as drug couriers by international drug syndicates.

According to Villapando, 17 Filipinos aged between 21 and 48 including 14 women are currently serving a jail sentence from 4 years and 6 months to 11 years in the Coloane prison as a result of drug smuggling charges.

He told the MDTimes that most of them were arrested between 2008 and 2009 and were caught transporting heroin primarily from Malaysia, or from Vietnam, Thailand or Manila.

The individual who received a sentence of 11 years in jail was apprehended in October 2008 after being found to have swallowed 50 pellets of heroin.

Villapando said globally there are altogether about 300 Philippine citizens imprisoned for drug trafficking, with a majority of them in China and other Southeast Asian countries.

Nevertheless, he believed that in the SAR alone the situation has been improving. “Unlike in the past, only one Filipina was arrested at the airport since May 2010.”

‘Easy, quick money’

Filipinos, the consul general believed, were willing to take the risk quite often because of the “instant financial return”, which he admitted is a “temptation” and a “great help” for their economic needs.

“[A drug courier] can be offered free travel […] and what they will be earning in one year could be earned in just one day if they were lucky,” he said.

However, Villapando pointed out that some of the drug mules were victims as they had no idea that the packages given by a friend, their employer or even boyfriend were indeed drugs.

“Syndicate members use the Internet to establish a romantic relationship with the Filipina and then make use of them to smuggle drugs. African men are very good at sweet talk,” he told the MDTimes.

“Some Filipinas are too naïve. They aren’t bothered to check what’s inside the packages and will just promise their friend to give it to someone else when going abroad,” he added.

However, the consul general believed that the Philippine migrant workers will unlikely engage in drug smuggling activities as they may jeopardise their employment opportunities in the territory.

Philippine nationals before departing home to work overseas will need to participate in a program which basically reminds them to stay away from gambling and drug offences.

Other Filipinos may also be prohibited from departing the Manila airport despite holding a plane ticket, especially if their destination is Macau, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia or Laos, according to Villapando.

He said in addition to showing airport security that they have sufficient funds for their trip, passengers subject to questioning will also be required to present their return air tickets as well as to demonstrate ‘strong reasons to return’, such as having a business in the country.

This arrangement, he added, is aimed to prevent Philippine citizens from becoming prostitutes, illegal workers or drug couriers.

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