NewsThe drama of the Latin American drug "mules" that populate the prisons...

    The drama of the Latin American drug “mules” that populate the prisons of Hong Kong

    Zoila Lecarnaque Saavedra sealed her fate when agreed to transport a package from home in Peru to Hong Kong, a decision that cost him more than eight years in prison.

    A quarter of Hong Kong prisoners are women.a record percentage motivated by poor foreign “mules”, often tricked or forced to transport drugs.

    Recently released and awaiting deportation, Lecarnaque Saavedra, 60, told from her crowded shelter how she lost her freedom for easy money.

    It was in 2013 and I was broke. Her husband, the main breadwinner for the family in Lima, had left and she needed an eye operation.

    Zoila Lecarnaque Saavedra, and a decision that cost her more than eight years in prison.  AFP Photo

    Zoila Lecarnaque Saavedra, and a decision that cost her more than eight years in prison. AFP Photo

    Her situation became known in the neighborhood and she was proached by a woman who offered her a deal: fly to Hong Kong to pick up some duty-free electronics that she could sell when she returned. They would pay him $2,000.

    “They see people who are in a precarious economic situation, they see people who are going through things like that, right?” he told AFP. “So they search, they see who, in this case it was me“, he added.


    The woman, whose face reflects the harshness of her life, says she wants to warn others that they might be tempted by these offers.

    She speaks calmly, but her voice cracks as she recounts the moment when a policeman in Hong Kong intercepted her and he realized that he would not see his mother and daughter for many years.

    He recalled how officers found two jackets inside his suitcase. filled with condoms with more than 500 grams of liquid cocaine.

    The missionary Ana Maria Jara Fierro, who collaborates with the prisoners of Hong Kong.  AFP Photo

    The missionary Ana Maria Jara Fierro, who collaborates with the prisoners of Hong Kong. AFP Photo

    “Over time I realized, I meditated on the damage I caused to my family, to my children, to my mother, because they were the ones who felt worse than me and that hurts me,” he admitted with full eyes of tears

    To reduce his sentence, Lecarnaque Saavedra pleaded guiltyalthough he assures that he did not know about the cocaine and that he was never paid.

    “Here we have quite a few mules, many, because we come by order, for a payment,” he declared. “And the owners, they are free because they are not arrested,” he said.

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    His story is common in the female wings of Hong Kong prisonswhere there are, in addition to Latin Americans, many women from Asian and African countries.

    Hong Kong official statistics indicate that in 2021 a quarter of the 8,434 prisoners were women.

    It’s the highest rate in the world, according to the World Prison Brief, a global prison database from Birkbeck College, University of London.

    The second place, Qatar, has 15% female prison populationand only 16 other countries or territories have more than 10%.

    A general view of the Hong Kong Women's Prison.  AFP Photo

    A general view of the Hong Kong Women’s Prison. AFP Photo

    ideal port

    The Hong Kong Correctional Service said 37% of foreign prisoners are women, but declined to comment on why so many foreigners were behind bars.

    Activists, volunteers, lawyers and detained women with whom AFP spoke in recent weeks said that the majority of women in prison they are foreign “mules”.

    Hong Kong is ideally located and its port and airport are very busyso it has been a worldwide base for any type of trade, whether legal or criminal.

    Drug gangs prefer to use women as mules because they believe they attract less attention from the authorities.

    Father John Wotherspoon, a Catholic prison chlain with decades of working with mules, said most women drug traffickers they are vulnerable foreigners.

    “Coercion is a big problem and it can come in many forms, financial, physical, emotional,” he told AFP at his office in a Hong Kong neighborhood known for prostitution.

    The 75-year-old father has repeatedly traveled to Latin America to try to help families of detainees.

    He attends many of the drug trials in Hong Kong courts, collects donations for those convicted, and helps maintain a website that identifies people who he believes should be detained.

    Zoila Lecarnaque Saavedra has already returned to Peru.  AFP Photo

    Zoila Lecarnaque Saavedra has already returned to Peru. AFP Photo

    “The big problem is that the masterminds, the bigwigs, don’t get much mention,” he said.

    Mules are easy to spot for police and prosecutors in Hong Kong, where an early guilty plea can reduce jail sentences by a third.

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    very harsh laws

    Trying to avoid a conviction is risky given Hong Kong’s harsh drug laws. The transport of 600 grams or more of cocaine is subject to a minimum sentence of 20 years.

    In 2016, Caterina, a Venezuelan, was sentenced to 25 years in prison after she failed to convince a jury that she was forced to serve as a mule.

    She claimed that she was kidnped in Brazil after responding to a false job advertisement. She said that was repeatedly red and that his family was threatened until he agreed to travel to Hong Kong.

    “They treated me like a rag. I was afraid they would kill me,” he said.

    Caterina, who asked not to reveal her real name to protect her family, spoke to AFP from a Hong Kong jail.

    Pregnant before the kidnping, the 36-year-old woman gave birth to a child in prison.

    “I have worked with vulnerable people for many years, but this is a case that grips me,” Patricia Ho, a lawyer who has helped Caterina, told AFP.

    “What I can’t get out of my head is that I would have done exactly the same as her,” he said.

    According to Ho, one of the issues facing advocates is that Hong Kong recognizes the problem of human trafficking, but has no laws prohibiting it.

    For this reason, prosecutors, judges and juries rarely consider whether the mule is a victim of human trafficking.

    “By force or coercion, whatever you want to call it, she was forced to commit a crime. That to me perfectly fits the definition of human trafficking,” Ho said.

    Others know what they might be carrying but feel compelled to take the risk because of their poverty or circumstances.

    At first glance, Marcia Sousa’s Facebook profile looks like any other young Brazilian girl, with selfies and parties with friends on the beach.

    But four years ago he stopped posting photos. She was arrested at the Hong Kong airport with 600 grams of cocaine. liquid in her bra.

    He then told the court that he came from a poor family in northern Brazil, his mother needed kidney dialysis and recently became pregnant.

    She gave birth in prison awaiting trial.

    Judge Audrey Campbell-Moffat granted the 25-year-old woman extenuating circumstances for pleading guilty from the start, cooperating with police and being an exemplary mother to her son, according to prison reports.

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    “There was little more he could have done to show repentance,” the judge said, reducing the sentence to 10 years and six months, instead of the minimum 20 years.

    A few weeks later, AFP visited Sousa, who asked to use a pseudonym to protect his family from possible reprisals.

    “I tried my best to tell the judge to forgive me. I know I did something criminal, but it was for my sonshe said into a prison phone, dressed in prison garb behind thick plexiglass.

    “I was upset, but then I realized that she was right to sentence me, was balanced“, he admitted.

    In the early years of his son’s life, Sousa cared for him in prison.

    But as his third year proached, it was taken from him and he now lives in foster care until he can be placed with Sousa’s family in Brazil.

    “He cried a lot and didn’t eat”Sousa recalled of the first weeks of separation.

    All her thoughts revolve around meeting him again one day.

    “I think about the future, about taking care of my son,” he declared.

    But that future was put on hold when prosecutors pealed his sentence as too light, and another two years in prison were added.

    Throughout the world there has been a sharp decline in the use of mules for drug trafficking due to the coronavirus pandemic, which has slowed down air traffic.

    Instead they used post and courier companies.

    But the easing of restrictions means the mules will almost certainly fly again.

    With that, more women like Zoila will be tempted again.

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

    He was smiling as he pushed the luggage cart through the Lima airport exit bound for his family’s home a short distance away.

    “I cried because it was almost nine years”, he told AFP. “Right now I’m going to go home. My mom, my brothers, my children are waiting for me. The whole family is waiting for me at home.”

    By Maria Cristhin Kuioer, Jerome Taylor and Christian Sierra

    AFP Agency

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