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Drug mules fill Hong Kong women’s prisons

#Drug #mules #fill #Hong #Kong #womens #prisons

Zoila Lecarnaque Saavedra sealed her fate when she agreed to ship 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 that is being distorted by impoverished foreign drug mules who are often duped or coerced.

Awaiting deportation upon her release, Lecarnaque Saavedra sat on a bunk bed in a cramped hostel and described losing her gambling for quick bucks.

It was 2013 and she was broke. Her husband, the main breadwinner of her family in Peru’s capital Lima, had recently moved away and she had to have an eye operation.

Word got around in the neighborhood, and she said she was soon approached by a woman who offered her a deal: fly to Hong Kong to pick up tax-free electronics, which if returned could be sold at a profit and paid $2,000.

“You find people who are in a precarious economic situation,” Lecarnaque Saavedra told AFP. “They’re looking for them and in this case it was me.”

Lecarnaque Saavedra, 60, a tiny figure with a distressed face, said she wanted to warn others who might be tempted by such deals.

She lost her composure as she recounted how the customs officials pulled her aside and it dawned on her that she would not see her daughter and mother for many years.

“I’ve been thinking about the damage I’ve done to my family, my kids and my mom because they were the ones who felt worse than me and it hurts me,” she said, her eyes filling with tears.

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

Lecarnaque Saavedra pleaded guilty in hopes of a lighter sentence, although she claims she knew nothing 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 has many forms’ –

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

Activists, volunteers, lawyers and women in prison who AFP spoke to over the past year said foreign drug runners make up a large proportion of the women in prison blocks.

Hong Kong Correctional Services said 37 percent of foreign inmates are female, but declined to comment on why.

With a thriving port and airport, Hong Kong has long been a global center for both legal and criminal trafficking.

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, its airport was one of the busiest and best connected in the world.

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

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

Hong Kong dwarfs second-place Qatar, another global transportation hub where 15 percent of detainees are women. Only 16 other countries or territories have shares above 10 percent.

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

“Coercion is a big problem and it can come in many forms, economic, physical, emotional,” he told AFP from his office in a crowded Hong Kong neighborhood known for its red-light shops.

Wotherspoon, a bright spirit aged 75, has traveled repeatedly to Latin America to try to help the families of those arrested – sometimes even against traffickers.

He attends many of the drug trials that fill the daily routine at Hong Kong’s High Court, raising funds for those convicted and helping maintain a website naming some of the characters he thinks should be behind bars – partly collected through testimonies from those who are detained in prison.

“The big problem is that the masterminds, the big fish, as I call them, don’t get much mention,” he said.

– Perpetrator or victim? –

Drug mules are easy prey for police and prosecutors in Hong Kong, where an early confession of guilt typically cuts prison time by a third.

Given the city’s strict drug laws, fighting a conviction is risky. Sentencing guidelines start at 20 years for more than 600 grams of cocaine.

In 2016, Venezuelan citizen Caterina was sentenced to 25 years in prison after failing to convince a jury that she was being forced to be a mule.

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

“They treated me like garbage, I was afraid they would kill me,” Caterina, 36, who asked not to give her real name to protect her family, told AFP from Hong Kong prison .

Pregnant before she was kidnapped, Caterina gave birth to a baby boy in prison, and her subsequent appeal fell through.

“I’ve worked with vulnerable people for many years, but this is a case that concerns me,” Patricia Ho, a lawyer who helped with Caterina’s appeal, told AFP.

“What I can’t shake out of my head is that I would have done the exact same thing as them.”

Ho said one of the big problems the defense teams encountered is that while Hong Kong recognizes human trafficking as a problem, there is no specific law prohibiting it.

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

“By force or coercion — whatever words you want to throw in there — she was compelled to commit a crime. It all fits the definition of human trafficking to me,” Ho said.

– mother and child separated –

Some mules know what they are carrying but feel compelled by their circumstances to take the risk.

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

But four years ago, the updates stopped abruptly.

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

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

She gave birth in prison while awaiting trial.

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

“You could not have done more to show your sincere remorse,” Campbell-Moffat said as she reduced her sentence to 10 years and six months from the recommended 20 years.

A few weeks later, AFP met Sousa, who asked to use a pseudonym to protect her family from possible repercussions.

“I tried my best to tell the judge to forgive me. I know I did something criminal, but it was for my son,” she said over a prison phone, dressed in a tan uniform and shielded with thick plexiglass.

“I was angry. But after that I realized that she was right to give me the verdict, she was balanced.”

In the early years of her son’s life, Sousa was allowed to take care of him in prison.

But as his third birthday approached, he was taken into care until he could be sent to Sousa’s family in Brazil.

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

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

“I’m thinking about the future and taking care of my son,” she said.

But that future was pushed further into the horizon when prosecutors successfully appealed their sentence, arguing it was too lenient as Sousa was given an additional two years this month.

– Post-pandemic mule surge? –

As the pandemic affected air travel, the number of drug couriers around the world dropped.

Traffickers shifted to mail and courier shipments, with large shipments made by air freight and shipping containers.

But when the pandemic subsides, drug mules will almost inevitably return to heaven.

That means more women like Zoila will be lured into a trade fueled by smugglers and consumers who care little if they succeed.

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

She beamed as she pushed her luggage cart through the arrivals hall of Lima Airport and made her way to her family, a short drive away.

“I cried because it’s been almost nine years 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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#Drug #mules #fill #Hong #Kong #womens #prisons

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