Easy target: drug lords fill Hong Kong’s women’s prison

A quarter of Hong Kong prisoners are women, a record proportion skewed by impoverished foreign drug traffickers who are often duped or coerced

  • Maria Christine Kuiper, Jerome Taylor, Christian Sierra / AFP, Hong Kong

Zoila Lecarnaque Saavedra sealed her fate when she agreed to transport a package from Peru to Hong Kong. This decision resulted in her serving over eight years in prison.

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

After his release, while awaiting deportation, Rekarnak Saavedra sat on a bunk bed in a cramped hostel and described how he lost gambling for quick money.

Photo: AFP

It was 2013 and she was broke. Her husband, the primary breadwinner for her family in Lima, Peru’s capital, had recently moved out of her home and she needed surgery on her eye.

Rumors spread around the neighborhood, and she said she was soon offered a deal by a woman. She flew to Hong Kong to pick up some duty-free electronics, and if she sold them, she would make a profit and pay US$2,000.

“They find people in precarious economic situations,” Rekarnak Saavedra said. “They look for them. In this case, it was me.”

Photo: AFP

Lecarnaque Saavedra, a diminutive 60-year-old with a distressed face, said she wanted to warn others who might be tempted into such deals.

Reflecting on the moment the customs officer pulled her aside, she became restless and realized that she had not seen her daughter and mother for years.

“I looked back at the damage I had done to my family, my children, my mother because they felt worse than I did and it hurt me,” her eyes filled with tears.

She described how officers found two jackets filled with condoms containing about 500 grams of liquid cocaine inside the suitcase. Lecarnaque Saavedra claims she didn’t know about the cocaine and was never paid for it, but she pleaded guilty in hopes of getting a lighter sentence.

“My boss is free and not under arrest. I don’t know why,” she said.

“Coercion comes in many forms.”

The story is well known in Hong Kong’s women’s prison.

Activists, prison volunteers, lawyers and Jai women said foreign drug traffickers make up a major percentage of the female prison wing.

The Hong Kong Correctional Service said 37% of foreign prisoners were women, but declined to comment on why. Hong Kong, with its thriving ports and airports, has long been a global hub for both legal and criminal trade.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, it was one of the busiest and best connected airports in the world.

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

Of the 8,434 people jailed in Hong Kong last year, a quarter were women, according to official statistics, the highest percentage in the world, according to the World Prison Brief. Hong Kong overwhelms her second-placed Qatar, where 15% of her inmates are women. Only 16 other countries or territories have a ratio above her 10%.

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

“Extortion is a big problem and can come in many forms: financial, physical and emotional,” he said at his office in a busy district of Hong Kong known for its red light district.

A 75-year-old energy ball, Wotherspoon has made numerous trips to Latin America to help the families of those who were arrested, sometimes even going head-to-head with human traffickers. He attended the many drug trials that fill his daily schedule at Hong Kong’s High Court, soliciting donations for convicts and naming characters he thinks should be in prison. I help him maintain his website. prison.

“The big problem is that the masterminds, I call them big guys, aren’t mentioned much,” he said.

perpetrator or victim?

Hong Kong makes it easy for police and prosecutors to catch drug traffickers. In Hong Kong, an early guilty plea usually cuts her prison sentence by a third.

Fighting a conviction is dangerous given the city’s strict drug regulations. Sentencing guidelines begin when he is 20 for over 600 grams of cocaine.

In 2016, Caterina, a Venezuelan national, was sentenced to 25 years in prison after failing to persuade a jury to coerce her into becoming a mule.

She claimed she was kidnapped by a gang in Brazil after answering 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 would kill me,” said Katerina, 36, from a Hong Kong prison who asked not to reveal her real name to protect her family.

Katerina, who was pregnant prior to her kidnapping, gave birth to a boy in prison and her subsequent appeal was dismissed.

“I have worked with vulnerable people for years and this is one of the cases that haunts me,” said Patricia Ho, the attorney who helped Katerina on her appeal. Told.

“What I can’t get out of my mind is that I would have done exactly what she did.”

One of the major problems the defense team has encountered is that Hong Kong recognizes that human trafficking is a problem, but there is no specific law outlawing it, Mr Ho said. In other words, prosecutors, judges and juries rarely consider whether a mule is a trafficking victim.

“By coercion and coercion, she was forced to commit crimes, no matter what words she wanted to put in. To me, it all fits the definition of human trafficking,” Ho said.

family separation

Even though some mules know what they have, they may feel compelled to take risks because of circumstances. At first glance, Marcia Sousa’s Facebook profile looks like any other young Brazilian. She’s filled with selfies showing off her new braids and pictures of her partying with her friends on the beach. But four years ago the updates suddenly stopped.

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

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

She gave birth in prison while awaiting trial. In her sentencing, Judge Audrey Campbell Moffat said the 25-year-old girl had pleaded guilty early, cooperated with police, and had been an exemplary mother to her son, according to a prison report. He commended many of the mitigating circumstances, such as cooperating with

“There is nothing more you can do to show true remorse,” said Campbell Moffat, who reduced his sentence from 20 years to 10 years and 6 months. AFP met Sousa a few weeks later. Sousa asked to use a pseudonym to protect his family from potential repercussions.

“I did my best to tell the judge to forgive me. I know I did something wrong, but it was for my son,” she told the prison phone said through

“I was angry. But then I realized she was right to sentence me. She was on balance.”

For the first few years of her son’s life, Sousa was allowed to care for her son in prison. But as his third birthday approached, he was cared for until he was 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 separation.

All her thoughts revolved around reuniting with him.

“I’m thinking about the future while taking 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 this month Sousa was sentenced to another two years.

Mule surge?

The number of drug traffickers worldwide has plummeted as the pandemic has hit air travel.

Human traffickers shifted to postal and courier services, and bulk deliveries were made via airfreight and shipping containers.

But as the pandemic eases, it’s almost inevitable that drug lords will return to the skies.

This means women like Zoila are lured into the trade, fueled by smugglers and consumers who care little if they succeed.

Last month, Zoila was deported from her longtime dream of Hong Kong.

She smiled as she pushed her luggage cart into the arrivals hall of Lima’s airport and headed for her family’s home, which is a short drive away.

“It’s been nearly nine years and I cried because I had to go 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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