A string of large seizures of cocaine have underscored Hong Kong’s growing role as a regional import point and consumer market as the cocaine trade expands across East Asia.
The latest seizure occurred in early November in the coastal town of Tin Shui Wai, where authorities discovered 610 kilograms of cocaine in a shipping container. The drugs were concealed in frozen fruit juice that had been shipped from Brazil’s port of São Paulo, according to a November 8 government news release.
Metal drums were used instead of plastic buckets to slip the cocaine past scanning devices and “to make it more difficult and time-consuming for officers to dismantle them,” said Chan Kong-Ming, superintendent of Hong Kong’s anti-drug police.
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The November bust was only the second-largest this year. In April, police announced a record haul of 700 kilograms of cocaine believed to have been trafficked across the Pacific before being divided and smuggled into the city via speedboats.
Such tactics – and quantities – are increasingly common in Hong Kong. In August, the territory made its largest air freight seizure, when authorities intercepted 110 kilograms of cocaine sent from Brazil to Hong Kong in two huge hydraulic devices.
Crack cocaine has also been discovered recently by authorities, albeit in far smaller quantities. On November 2, authorities seized 3.5 kilograms of crack at the home of a low-level distributor. Cocaine powder and baking soda, used in the making of crack, were also found at the site, according to reporting by the South China Morning Post.
The amount of cocaine seized from January to May 2021 was 60 times higher than in the same period last year, according to Hong Kong police.
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Hong Kong has long been an important node in the Asian cocaine trade, offering a robust consumption market, easy access to the Chinese mainland and the logistical capacity to tranship drugs across the Asia-Pacific region.
“Relationships have been brokered between Latin American suppliers and Chinese-based syndicates for some time now, particularly in relation to cocaine,” Jason Eligh, senior expert at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime (GI-TOC), told InSight Crime.
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The cocaine is arriving from diverse launching points. In years past, authorities have focused on traffic from Colombia, though a Mexican trade official garnered attention in 2015 when he claimed the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación - CJNG) was reaping profits from Hong Kong’s cocaine market. News releases point to Brazil as the most common source country this year, though shipments from Peru, Panama and Suriname have also been intercepted.
Smuggling dynamics have been equally fluid. Before the pandemic, in 2019, Hong Kong accounted for nearly 10 percent of cocaine seized across the whole of Asia. Most of it arrived by shipping container, according to the latest World Drug Report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
In 2020, pandemic travel restrictions caused a dramatic, yet temporary, spike in small-scale cocaine trafficking to Hong Kong by air parcel. Cocaine seized in parcels increased tenfold in 2020 compared to the previous year, which sent the retail price per gram to $220 by summer, a jump from $140 in spring, according to reporting by the South China Morning Post.
This year’s large seizures mark the resumption of large-scale cocaine trafficking by container and air freight, according to customs officials. One senior official said that over half of the seized cocaine is likely destined for the local market.
What’s more, the evolution and possible growth of Hong Kong’s cocaine market can be seen in the increasing appearance of crack cocaine, according to Eligh.
“The manufacture of crack is an expected development as supply chains become embedded and powder markets mature in respect to their demand profile…[crack cocaine] also tends to provide a greater return on investment than does powder alone,” he said.