Hong Kong Customs seize phones and pharmaceuticals worth HK$7.5m hidden in excavators

Hong Kong customs officers have arrested a local businessman after seizing more than HK$7.5 million ($955,403) in contraband hidden in five excavators in a crackdown on cross-border maritime smugglers .

The new tactic being used to hide goods was uncovered after officers intercepted a mainland-bound river trade vessel near the maritime border in waters west of the city on Thursday evening last week.

Four of the excavators were confiscated from the ship, while the fifth machine was found in an outdoor parking lot in Yuen Long, according to Superintendent Cheng Tak-hei of the customs union’s crime investigation office.

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Cheng said on Tuesday that the loot, mostly containing second-hand cellphones and pharmaceuticals, was hidden in a secret compartment between the treadmill wheels at the bottom of each excavator.

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“It’s the first time we find out about this concealment method in an anti-smuggling operation,” Cheng said.

He added that he believed heightened enforcement measures by authorities in Hong Kong and the mainland had led cross-border smugglers to use different tactics in recent months.

In an attempt to evade arrest, smuggling syndicates used river trade vessels instead of speedboats and also used their structural spaces to hide contraband.

“They keep changing their tactics and methods of concealment in an effort to evade our detection,” he said.

About two weeks ago, customs officers confiscated 50 million Hong Kong dollars ($6.4 million) in contraband goods hidden in the ballast of a river trading vessel.

In the latest case, the intelligence led them to identify the outdoor parking lot of Yuen Long, where illicit goods were hidden in five excavators. Officers then placed the site under 24-hour surveillance.

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On Thursday morning, four evacuators were transported to the cargo storage area in Yau Ma Tei and loaded onto a river trade vessel. The boat was intercepted near the maritime border in Hong Kong’s western waters as it left the city the same night.

After the discovery of contraband in construction material, the ship’s captain was arrested. He was released unconditionally after helping with the investigation.

At the same time, customs officers raided the Yuen Long site where the director of a local company responsible for shipping was arrested on suspicion of trying to export undeclared goods. They also found cargo concealed in an excavator at the site.

The manager said the transport, which included around 5,000 second-hand cellphones and pharmaceuticals of the same amount, was worth more than HK$7.5 million, while five excavators worth HK$2.5 million HK dollars were also seized during the operation.

“An initial survey suggests that used cellphones were valued at HK$4.5 million, but they could be sold for up to HK$16 million after repair and refurbishment,” Cheng said. .

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He revealed that the pharmaceuticals were worth around HK$3 million and most were for cancer treatment, adding that customs were still investigating the source of the goods.

Cheng said the investigation suggested the shipment was destined for Foshan in Guangdong.

He added that he believed the illegal operation was designed to evade strict import restrictions and tariffs imposed by mainland authorities.

So far this year, customs officials have confiscated HK$390 million worth of contraband in 26 maritime smuggling cases. There were 47 cases involving the seizure of HK$520 million worth of illicit goods in the first half of 2021.

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