Drug traffickers flood Hong Kong’s women’s prisons

Zoila Lecarnaque Saavedra sealed her fate when she agreed to move a package from Peru to Hong Kong, a decision that earned her more than eight years in prison.

A quarter of Hong Kong’s prisoners are women, a record high percentage due to impoverished foreign drug traffickers who are often tricked or coerced.

Awaiting deportation after her release, Lekarnak Saavedra sat on a bunk bed in a cramped hostel and told how she lost her gamble for quick money.

It was 2013 and she was broke. Her husband, the main breadwinner of her family in Peru’s capital, Lima, recently left and she needed eye surgery.

Rumors spread around the area, and she said that she was soon approached by a woman who offered her a deal: fly to Hong Kong to pick up duty-free electronics that could be sold at a profit on her return and get $2,000.

“They find people who are in dire economic straits,” Lekarnak Saavedra told AFP. “They’re looking for them, and in this case it was me.”

Lekarnake Saavedra, 60, a petite figure with a face full of deprivation, said she wanted to warn others who might be tempted by such deals.

She lost her composure, remembering the moment when the customs officers took her aside and it dawned on her that she would not see her daughter and mother for many more years.

“I thought about the damage I did to my family, my children, my mother, because they were the ones who felt worse than me and it hurt me,” she said, her eyes filling with tears.

She described how officers found two jackets in her suitcase that were filled with condoms containing about 500 grams (17 ounces) of cocaine in liquid form.

In the hope of a commuted sentence for Lekarnake, Saavedra pleaded guilty, although she claims she did not know about the cocaine and was never paid.

“The bosses are free, they haven’t been arrested, and I don’t know why,” she said.

“Coercion comes in many forms”

This story is all too well known in Hong Kong’s women’s prisons.

Activists, prison volunteers, lawyers and women in prisons AFP spoke to last year say foreign drug traffickers make up the majority of those in women’s prison wards.

The Hong Kong Correctional Service said 37% of foreign prisoners were women, but declined to comment on the reasons for this.

PEruan citizen Zoila Lecarnaque Saavedra, who was convicted of drug trafficking in Hong Kong in 2014, after returning home at Jorge Chavez Airport in Lima on June 4, 2022. Photo: Ernesto BENAVIDEZ / AFP

With a prosperous port and airport, Hong Kong has long been a global hub for commerce, both legal and criminal.

Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, its airport was one of the busiest in the world and had the best connections.

Drug syndicates prefer to use women as mules, believing they are less likely to attract the attention of the authorities.

Official statistics show that a quarter of the 8,434 people serving time in Hong Kong last year were women, the highest number in the world, according to the World Prison Brief.

Hong Kong dwarfs Qatar, another global transport hub where 15% of prisoners are women. Only in 16 other countries or territories is the figure higher than 10%.

Father John Wotherspoon, a Catholic prison chaplain who worked with convicted drug smugglers for decades, said the vast majority of female mules were vulnerable foreigners.

“Coercion is a big problem and it can come in many forms, economic, physical, emotional,” he told AFP from his office in Hong Kong’s crowded red-light district.

Wotherspoon, a bundle of energy at 75, has traveled to Latin America on numerous occasions to try to help the families of those arrested, sometimes even running into traffickers.

He attends the many drug trials that fill the Hong Kong High Court’s daily schedule, collects donations for convicts, and helps maintain a website that lists the names of some of the characters he thinks should be behind bars. .

“The big problem is that the masterminds, the big fish as I call them, are not mentioned much,” he said.

Perpetrator or victim?

Drug smugglers are easy prey for police and prosecutors in Hong Kong, where an early confession of guilt usually results in a sentence reduced by a third.

Fighting conviction is risky given the city’s harsh drug regulations. Sentencing recommendations start at age 20 for over 600 grams of cocaine.

In 2016, Venezuelan citizen Caterina received 25 years in prison after she failed to convince a jury that she was forced to become a mule.

She claimed she was kidnapped by a gang in Brazil after she responded to a fake job advertisement. She said she was repeatedly raped and threatened by her family until she agreed to fly to Hong Kong.

“They treated me like garbage, I was afraid they were going to kill me,” Katerina, 36, who asked not to be identified by her real name to protect her family, told AFP from prison in Hong Kong.

Pregnant before she was kidnapped, Katerina gave birth to a boy in prison, and her subsequent appeal was denied.

“I have been working with vulnerable people for many years, but this case hangs over me,” Patricia Ho, the lawyer who helped Katerina with the appeal, told AFP.

“What I can’t get out of my head is that I would have done exactly the same as her.”

Ho said one of the major issues advocacy groups faced was that while Hong Kong recognizes human trafficking as a problem, there is no specific law outlawing it.

This means that prosecutors, judges and juries rarely consider whether a mule is a victim of human trafficking.

“By force or coercion – whatever words were thrown in there – she was forced to commit a crime. For me, this fully fits the definition of human trafficking,” Ho said.

mother and child separated

Some mules know what they can carry but are forced to take risks due to circumstances.

At first glance, Marcia Sousa’s Facebook profile looks like any other young Brazilian, filled with selfies showing off new braids and photos of partying with friends on the beach.

But four years ago, updates abruptly stopped.

Soon after, Sousa was arrested at the Hong Kong airport with just over 600 grams of liquid cocaine in her bra.

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She later told the court that she came from a poor family in northern Brazil, her mother needed kidney dialysis, and she got pregnant by a man who abandoned her.

She gave birth in prison while awaiting trial.

At sentencing, Judge Audrey Campbell-Moffat praised the 25-year-old for a host of extenuating circumstances, including an early guilty plea, cooperation with police, and reports from prison that she was a model mother to her son.

“There was little you could do to show your sincere remorse,” said Campbell-Moffat, shortening her sentence from the recommended 20 years to 10 years and six months.

Weeks later, AFP with Souza, who asked to use an alias to protect her family from any possible repercussions.

“I tried my best to ask the judge to forgive me. I know I did something criminal, but it was for my son,” she said over the prison phone, dressed in a beige uniform and protected by thick perspex.

“I was angry. But then I realized that she was right in sentencing me, she was balanced.”

For the first few years of his son’s life, Sousa was allowed to take care of him in prison.

But as his third birthday approached, he was taken care of until he was sent to the Souza family in Brazil.

“He cried a lot and didn’t eat anything,” Souza said of the first few weeks after the separation.

All her thoughts, she said, revolved around reuniting with him.

“I think about the future, I take care of my son,” she said.

But that future was pushed further into the horizon when prosecutors successfully appealed her sentence, claiming it was too lenient, and Sousa was given two more years this month.

A surge in mules after the pandemic?

As the pandemic disrupted air travel, the number of drug traffickers around the world has plummeted.

Drug traffickers switched to postal and courier transportation, with large shipments made by air transport and sea containers.

But as the pandemic eases, drug traffickers will almost inevitably return to the skies.

This means more women like Zoila will be drawn into a trade supported by smugglers and consumers who care little if they succeed.

Last month, Zoila was deported from Hong Kong, something she had dreamed of for years.

She beamed as she pushed her baggage cart through the arrivals hall at the Lima airport and headed to her family’s home, a short drive away.

“I was crying because it’s been almost nine years and now I’m going home,” she said.

“My mother, my brothers and sisters, my children are waiting for me. The whole family is waiting for me at home.”

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