Easy targets: Drug mules fill women’s jails in Hong Kong

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

A quarter of Hong Kong’s prisoners are women, a record-high percentage skewed by impoverished foreign drug mules who are often duped or coerced.

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

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

She lost composure when recounting the moment customs officers pulled her aside and it dawned on her she would not be seeing her daughter and mother for many years.

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

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

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

Hong Kong Correctional Services said 37 percent of foreign inmates were female but declined to comment on the reasons for this. 

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

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

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

Wotherspoon, a bundle of energy at 75 years old, has travelled repeatedly to Latin America to try and help families of those arrested — even confronting traffickers at times. 

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

Drug mules are easy pickings for police and prosecutors in Hong Kong, where an early guilty plea usually results in prison time being reduced by a third.

In 2016, Venezuelan national Caterina got 25 years in prison after failing to persuade a jury she was coerced into being a mule.

“They treated me like trash, I was afraid they were going to kill me,” 36-year-old Caterina, who asked not to give her real name to protect her family, told AFP from prison in Hong Kong.

“I have been working for many years with vulnerable people, but this is one case that hangs over me,” Patricia Ho, a lawyer who helped with Caterina’s appeal, told AFP.

Ho said one of the big issues defence teams encountered was that, although Hong Kong recognises human trafficking is a problem, there is no specific law outlawing it. 

“Through force or coercion -– whatever words you want to throw in there –- she was forced to commit a crime. That to me all fits squarely within the definition of human trafficking,” Ho said. 

Some mules know what they might be carrying but feel compelled to take the risk because of their circumstances. 

But four years ago, the updates abruptly stopped.

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

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

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

“I was angry. But afterwards, I realised she was right to give me the sentence, she was balanced.”

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

All her thoughts, she said, revolved around being reunited with him.

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

As the pandemic hammered air travel, the number of drug mules worldwide plunged.

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

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

“I cried because it has been almost nine years, now I’m going home,” she said. 

bur-jta/kma/dva/cwl

Originally published as Easy targets: Drug mules fill women’s jails in Hong Kong


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