The Australian Crime Commission (ACC) believes dozens of vulnerable Australians have been coerced into carrying drugs through Asia into Australia for West African syndicates with bases in Sydney, Melbourne, and Adelaide over the past two years.
Speaking to ABC's 7.30 Report, ACC national manager of investigations Richard Grant said, "Since 2013, there's been 39 people arrested at the [Australian] border who have been clearly groomed by these syndicates that are operating offshore." The individuals, who are largely elderly, mentally ill, or underage, are believed to have been lured via email scams into becoming mules for millions of dollars worth of drugs.
The couriers, reportedly carrying large amounts of Methamphetamine (commonly known in Australia as "ice") through China, Malaysia, Hong Kong, and the Philippines. Of these countries, China and Malaysia have the death penalty for drug trafficking.
In many cases, contact was initially made via email. Father John Wotherspoon is an Australian prison chaplain who regularly visits Australians in Hong Kong jails. Speaking to the ABC about victims' similar experiences with online scams he said: "Some of them were in contact with internet people for more than a year...and eventually tricked into coming to Hong Kong, and then tricked into carrying a bag back to Australia. Nearly all of them have the same story: that they were given the bags at the last minute before they had much of a chance to check."
In a case typifying their methods, one woman was told by a man claiming to be a Nigerian banker to travel from New York, via Hong Kong, to Australia where she would be given a multi-million-dollar compensation payment. In Hong Kong she was handed a backpack to carry into Australia. It was only after she was searched on arrival that she realized the bag was lined with drugs.
Of the cases where arrests were made in Australia, and cases finalized in Australian courts, two-thirds of the mules were cleared of any wrongdoing. The most immediate concern is for the 26 Australians targeted by the group who are being held in China on smuggling charges, nine of whom are facing the death penalty.
The Australian Federal Government and Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade have each made appeals to China, presenting concerns that individuals were tricked into becoming unwitting traffickers.
Adding to their consternation is that many claiming to be scam victims are disabled. Last year disability pensioner John Warwick died in a Chinese prison hospital while detained for smuggling 1.9 kilograms of ice. The unlikely criminal was partially blind, had a heart condition, type 2 diabetes, and gout. He claimed online scammers lured him to Guangzhou, where he was arrested. (Guangzhou is considered the ice capital of the world, and a base for West African drug operations.)
It's believed Australians and New Zealanders are often targeted because their passports—which allow easy travel throughout the Asia Pacific. In June of this year, the Australian Federal Police detailed their efforts to prevent Australians falling victim to these schemes. They reported that since late 2014, they had intercepted 43 people traveling overseas who had been contacted by the scammers. Thirty-six cancelled their flights, while the final seven made the trip despite warnings.
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