Zoila Lecarnaque Saavedra sealed her own fate when she agreed to deliver a package from Peru to Hong Kong, which sent her to prison for more than eight years.
25% of prisoners in Hong Kong are women, mostly impoverished foreigners who have been tricked or forced into drug trafficking. Saavedra, 60, awaits deportation after being released. She sat on a bunk bed in a cramped motel room on May 9, recounting the situation in 2013 that led her to the path of labor.
Her husband, the breadwinner in Lima, the Peruvian capital, had left and Saavedra needed eye surgery. News spread throughout the neighborhood, a woman approached Saavedra, asking her to fly to Hong Kong to get tax-free electronics and resell for a profit of $2,000.
“They often look for people who are in a precarious economic situation,” Saavedra said. “They hunted their prey everywhere and this time found me.”
People like Saavedra are known as drug “mule”. They are not related to drug cartels but are hired, coerced or tricked by these organizations to transport drugs across borders. Gangs see this as a way to find a substitute to avoid the risk of organization members being arrested.
The woman has a modest height, a face full of austerity, wants to warn others not to fall into the same situation as her. Her voice trembled as she recounted the moment she was held by a customs officer and realized she would not be able to see her mother and daughter for years.
“I think about the pain it has caused to my family, to my children, to my mother, because they are the ones who feel worse than me, that’s why I’m heartbroken,” she said, crying.
Customs officers found two coats inside Saavedra’s suitcase filled with condoms and 500 grams of liquid cocaine inside. Hoping for a light trial, Saavedra pleaded guilty despite claiming he had no knowledge of the cocaine and was not paid.
“The mastermind is still free, not arrested, I don’t know why,” she said.
Saavedra’s story is all too familiar in a women’s prison in Hong Kong. Activists, volunteers, lawyers and inmates say foreign drug traffickers make up the majority of female prisoners. The Hong Kong Corrections Authority said 37 per cent of foreign prisoners were female, but declined to comment on the cause.
Hong Kong, a bustling air and maritime transit hub in Asia, has long been a global hub for both legal and illegal commerce.
Before the pandemic, Hong Kong airport was one of the busiest places in the world, with the best connection system in the world. Drug gangs like to use women as “mule”, because they think they are less noticed by the authorities.
Statistics show that 25% of the 8,434 people jailed in Hong Kong last year were women, the highest percentage globally, according to the World Prison Brief database. Qatar ranked second with 15%. Only 16 other countries or territories have rates above 10%.
John Wotherspoon, 75, prison chaplain, has been in contact with drug traffickers for decades. The majority of female “mule” are vulnerable foreigners, he said. “They are often subjected to coercion in many ways, economically, physically, emotionally,” he said.
Wotherspoon regularly travels to Latin American countries, trying to help the families of those arrested, even confronting a group of people traffickers.
He attended numerous drug trials in Hong Kong courts, donated to convicts, helped maintain a website that named a number of people he thought should have gone to jail, based on the defendant’s testimony. core. “The problem is that the masterminds, the big fish, are rarely talked about,” he said.
Drug mules are an easy target for police and prosecutors in Hong Kong, where an early confession can cut jail time by a third. The defense is very difficult because Hong Kong drug laws are quite strict. Trafficking and transporting more than 600 grams of cocaine can face up to 20 years in prison.
In 2016, Caterina, a Venezuelan citizen, was sentenced to 25 years in prison after failing to convince a jury that she was forced to transport drugs. She said she was kidnapped by a gang in Brazil when she went to interview for a job. Caterina was raped, her family threatened, until she agreed to fly to Hong Kong.
“They treat me like trash, I’m afraid they’ll kill me,” said a 36-year-old woman in jail in Hong Kong.
She became pregnant before being kidnapped and gave birth to a son in prison. Caterina’s appeal was unsuccessful.
“I have worked with vulnerable people for many years, but her case has always bothered me,” said Patricia Ho, the attorney who helped Caterina with the appeal. “I can’t get rid of the thought that if I’m in the same situation, I would act like her.”
Ho said one of the biggest problems the defense team faces is that Hong Kong admits human trafficking but has no specific ban. This means that prosecutors, judges, and juries rarely consider whether drug traffickers are victims of human trafficking.
“She was forced to commit crimes by force or coercion, to me, that completely fits the definition of human trafficking,” Ho said.
Some people know the item they will have to ship but have no choice but to take the risk because of the circumstances.
Marcia Sousa’s Facebook page is like every young Brazilian, full of selfies showing off her new braid or partying with friends on the beach. But 4 years ago, she stopped updating. Sousa was arrested at Hong Kong airport with more than 600 grams of liquid cocaine in her bra.
In court, Sousa was born in a poor family in northern Brazil, her mother had to undergo dialysis, and she was pregnant, but the child’s father abandoned her. Sousa gave birth in prison while awaiting trial.
In sentencing, Judge Audrey Campbell-Moffat said that the 25-year-old girl had many mitigating factors such as early confession, cooperation in reporting, and prison reports showing that she was a good mother who knew how to take care of her children. The prosecutor recommended a 20-year prison sentence, but the judge fixed it at 10.5 years.
“I did my best to get the judge to forgive me. I know I committed a crime but I did it for my children,” Sousa said a few weeks later. “I was very angry but then realized the judge had given the right sentence. She was very fair.”
For the first few years, Sousa was allowed to care for her son in prison. But when he was almost three years old, the boy was placed in a child care center until he was old enough to be with his family in Brazil.
“He cried all the time, stopped eating,” Sousa recounted the situation in the first few weeks after the mother and daughter had to separate. Now she only thinks about being reunited with her children. “I’m thinking about the future, I want to take care of my son.”
But that future was pushed further when the prosecutor in July successfully appealed on the grounds that the sentence was too light. Sousa received another two years in prison.
Covid-19 hit the world aviation industry, causing the number of “mule” to drop sharply. Traffickers switched to postal and courier deliveries, via container ships and cargo planes.
But when the pandemic subsides, drug mules are certain to return, meaning more women like Saavedra will be lured into drug trafficking by smugglers and addicts.
Last month, Saavedra was deported from Hong Kong. She had dreamed of this day for many years. Saavedra smiled and pushed her luggage through the Lima airport lobby to catch the car home.
“I cried because it’s been almost nine years since I came home,” she said. “My mother, my brothers and sisters, my children, are waiting for me. The whole family is waiting for me at home.”
Hong Hanh (Theo AFP)