In Hong Kong, drug ‘mules’ fill women’s prisons

published on Friday, July 29, 2022 at 09:04

When Zoila Lecarnaque Saavedra agreed to take a package from her home in Peru to Hong Kong, hoping to get the $2,000 that would bail her out of her rut, her life became a prison nightmare that lasted for more than eight years.

In Hong Kong, a quarter of those in prison are women. A proportion unmatched in the world, fueled by the many “mules” who, mainly from poor backgrounds in Latin America, try to smuggle drugs into the territory, often under duress or after being tricked into in their countries of origin.

Recently released, Ms. Lecarnaque Saavedra, 60, received AFP while he was awaiting deportation from Hong Kong.

Sitting on his bunk bed in a dilapidated boarding house, he describes how he took a bet to win some quick money, and lost it.

It was 2013 and he had no money. Her husband, a breadwinner, left her, and she needed an eye operation. The information began to circulate in his district of Lima.

One day, a woman approached him and offered him a deal: fly to Hong Kong to pick up duty-free electronics, and bring them back to Peru where they would be sold. A service where he will receive 2,000 dollars upon his return.

“They are looking for people who are in a dangerous economic situation”, told AFP this woman with a face marked by hardship. “And here they found me.”

His calm voice cracks only once, when he remembers the moment he was intercepted by customs officials at the airport and he realizes that he won’t see his daughter and mother again for years. .

In his suitcase, the agents discovered two jackets full of condoms that contained only 500 grams of cocaine in liquid form.

“I think about the damage I did to my family, my children, my mother, because they suffered more than me and it hurts me,” he said, his eyes filled with tears.

Hoping for a lighter sentence, he pleaded guilty at trial, although he maintained that he did not know there was cocaine in his suitcase, and he never received the minimum charge. “The chiefs are free, they have not been arrested”.

A story all too familiar in the women’s wards of Hong Kong prisons.

– A quarter of the prisoners are women –

Of the 8,434 people imprisoned in the territory last year, 25% were women, a record proportion according to the organization World Prison Brief.

Qatar, another major global transport hub, ranked second with 15%. Worldwide, the proportion of women in the prison population exceeds 10% in only 16 countries.

The Hong Kong Correctional Service reports that 37% of foreign national prisoners are women, while refusing to explain the reasons for such a high percentage.

But activists, prison visitors, lawyers and female prisoners interviewed by AFP last year all said a very high proportion of the city’s jailed women were “mules”.

With its privileged geographical location in the heart of Asia and its hyperactive port and airport, at least before the pandemic, Hong Kong has always been the center of all kinds of commerce, legal and illegal.

Drug traffickers prefer to use female “mules”, believing that they will attract less attention from the authorities.

Father John Wotherspoon, a Catholic prison chaplain who has spent decades meeting with the “mules”, says most of the drug dealers are vulnerable women who have been manipulated.

“Coercion is a big problem. It can take many forms: economic, physical, emotional,” explains the energetic man in his cramped office in a seedy part of Hong Kong.

The 75-year-old priest has traveled to Latin America several times to help the families of those arrested in Hong Kong.

He attends the drug-trafficking trials that take place every week in the High Court of Hong Kong, collects donations to help the condemned, and participates in the animation of a website that includes the names of individuals who, according to him , are the ones who should be imprisoned, according to the testimonies of the prisoners.

“The real problem is the + brain +. We don’t talk much about the big fish”, he lamented.

-easy prey-

Easy prey for drug traffickers, “mules” are also easy prey for police and prosecutors in Hong Kong, where pleading guilty can often reduce a sentence by a third.

In contrast, contesting an indictment is a risky bet in a territory where penalties for drug trafficking are severe. Carrying more than 600 grams of cocaine is punishable by a minimum sentence of twenty years in prison.

Caterina, a Venezuelan, was sentenced to 25 years in prison in 2016 after failing to convince a jury that she was carrying drugs under duress. He claimed he was kidnapped and raped by a gang in Brazil after responding to a false job offer, and had to agree to go to Hong Kong after threats against his family.

“They treat me like garbage, I’m afraid they will kill me,” Caterina, who declined to give her real name to protect her family, told AFP in a Hong Kong prison.

Pregnant before her abduction, Caterina, 36, gave birth to a baby boy in prison. Then his appeal was dismissed.

“I have worked for many years with vulnerable people, but this is a case that sticks in my throat,” Patricia Ho, a lawyer who defended Caterina during the appeal trial, told AFP. “What I can’t get out of my head is that I would do the same thing in his place.”

According to Mr Ho, one of the main problems faced by lawyers is that there is no law that specifically punishes human trafficking in Hong Kong. Because of this, prosecutors, judges and juries rarely admit that a “mula” is the victim of this trafficking.

“By force or coercion – whatever words you want to use – he was forced to commit a crime. To me, this all fits the definition of human trafficking,” said Mr. Ho by opening the case. said Caterina.

Some “mules” know very well what they are carrying, but feel compelled to take risks to escape poverty or for other reasons.

– Mother and son separated –

At first glance, the Facebook page of 25-year-old Marcia Sousa looks like any other young Brazilian, full of selfies, beach parties and hairstyle photos.

But four years later, her page suddenly stopped updating: Marcia Sousa was arrested at the Hong Kong airport with 600 grams of liquid cocaine in her bra.

Later, in court, she said that she came from a poor family in northern Brazil, that her mother needed dialysis, that she had recently become pregnant and that the father of the child l had stopped.

She gave birth while on remand. During his trial, the judge gave him mitigating circumstances, saying that he pleaded guilty, cooperated with the police and that he was a model mother for his son in prison.

Marcia Sousa, who faced a minimum sentence of 20 years, was sentenced to 10 years and 6 months in prison.

AFP met the young woman – who is using a pseudonym to protect her family in Brazil – in the prison where she is serving her sentence.

“I did everything I could to convince the judge to pardon me. I know I committed a criminal act, but I did it for my son,” she said to the telephone receiver in the visiting room, entering -ob in a beige prison uniform, behind a thick plexiglass wall.

“I was angry. But afterwards, I realized that he was right in condemning me. He was holding back,” he continued.

Ms. Sousa was able to take care of his son in prison for his first three years. Then, a few days before his third birthday, the child was taken from him. He is now living with a foster family, waiting to join his mother’s family in Brazil.

“He cried a lot and he stopped eating,” said Ms. Sousa, referring to the first weeks after the separation. He says, however, that his whole life now revolves around when they find each other.

A prospect that changed when the Court of Appeals, seized by prosecutors, found his sentence too light and extended it by two years.

The Covid-19 pandemic and the sudden slowdown in air traffic have led to a sharp decline in the use of “mules” to transport drugs around the world.

Traffickers replace them with shipments by parcel post, or by container for large quantities.

But as the world learns to live with the virus and activity begins again, the mules will inevitably return to service, and some women like Zoila Lecarnaque Saavedra will see their lives torn apart.

Last month, Ms. Lecarnaque Saavedra finally left Hong Kong, a day he dreamed of for years.

An AFP reporter met him pushing his luggage cart upon arrival at Lima airport, which was lit up as he made his way to his family’s home, several miles away.

“I’m crying because it’s been almost nine years, now I’m going home,” he 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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