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China busts cocaine ring — with U.S. help

Working together for the first time, Chinese and U.S. agents seized 300 pounds of Colombian cocaine and arrested nine people, authorities said Tuesday.
Song Min, Ben Leung Lun-cheung, Sin Wai-sun
Evidence from China's biggest cocaine bust is presented as officials describe the operation in Hong Kong Tuesday.Kin Cheung / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Chinese and U.S. agents seized more than 300 pounds of cocaine smuggled from Colombia, authorities said Tuesday — a record drug bust for China that underscores how South American narcotics gangs are aggressively moving into Asia.

Nine people were arrested. Chinese television footage showed a locker stacked high with dozens of bricks of smuggled cocaine, some with a yin yang symbol embossed on the solid white blocks.

The suspects include two Colombian citizens arrested in Hong Kong, along with suspects from Hong Kong and mainland China, said Liu Guangping, spokesman for the Customs General Administration of China.

“It’s pretty clear from this just how daunting a task we face,” Liu told reporters. He said it was by far the largest seizure of cocaine ever made in China.

'A huge market'
A joint inquiry by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency and customs agents in Hong Kong and mainland China uncovered the network of Colombian drug gangs and criminals from Hong Kong and China. They were working to distribute “multi-hundred-kilogram (pound) quantities” of cocaine in Asia, said William Fiebig, a DEA special agent based in Beijing.

“This is extremely significant as it confirms that Colombian drug trafficking organizations are expanding their distribution operations into Asia and that large quantities of cocaine are already being imported into the mainland,” Fiebig said.

Agents said the gang intended to send at least some of the cocaine overseas again, first to Hong Kong, then to Thailand and as far away as West Africa.

“It’s a market, a huge market,” said Fiebig. “Why are other businesses coming to Asia?”

In this photo released by China's Customs Administration, a policeman displays cocaine after it was seized in China's southern Guangdong province on March 15, 2006. Chinese and U.S. agents on Tuesday May 9, 2006 announced the arrests of nine people and confiscation of 142.7 kilograms (314 pounds) of smuggled cocaine in the country's largest ever seizure of the drug. (AP Photo/China Customs Administration, HO)CHINA CUSTOMS ADMINISTRATION

Liu said authorities also discovered a drug lab tied to the gang during their investigation. No details were given, although photos of the raid provided by police showed bottles of ethyl ether — a key ingredient in making highly addictive crack cocaine.

Following the communist revolution in 1949, China virtually wiped out opium use that had afflicted many as 20 million addicts and crippled the economy. Stocks were destroyed, traffickers executed and millions of users forced to quit cold turkey or be sent to labor camps.

Drug use came roaring back in the 1980s following economic and social reforms that raised incomes and curbed some government intrusions into daily life.

Most recent drug-related problems — including the spread of AIDS — have been linked to heroin from Southeast Asia’s “Golden Triangle,” of Burma, Laos and northern Thailand, which abut southern China, as well as from Central Asia’s opium-producing “Golden Crescent” region.

Ecstasy also makes inroads
But other narcotics are making inroads: Liu said Chinese agents have recorded a 435 percent increase in drug seizures in the first three months of this year from a year earlier, with almost half of them synthetic drugs such as methamphetamine, Ecstasy and ketamine. The remainder was mostly heroin.

Rogene Waite, a DEA spokeswoman in Washington, said, “As more money comes into the Chinese economy, the market for drugs, unfortunately, grows concomitantly.”

China has almost 1 million registered drug addicts, while the number of actual users is believed to be far higher. Concerns about the worsening drug problem prompted communist leaders in April 2005 to announce a “People’s War on Drugs,” appealing for public help to rehabilitate addicts and offering rewards for help in catching traffickers.

Arrests in the cocaine case began March 15 after a three-month investigation, agents said. Footage shown on state television showed plainclothes officers tackling suspects from behind and throwing them to the ground on the street and in a department store.

Most of the drugs were discovered inside a wooden bed frame in a building in Zhongshan, an industrial district in southern China just hours from the border with Hong Kong. The equivalent of about $25,000 in Chinese and Hong Kong currency also was seized, Liu said.

'A model for the future'
Arrests and seizures continued until March 17, Liu said, adding the investigation was aided by key intelligence from the DEA.

Chinese and U.S. authorities have been stepping up cooperation in recent years as the drug trade between the two countries grows. The DEA quietly opened an office in Beijing about five years ago.

Fiebig said the agency has been working closely with China’s anti-narcotics agency, but the cocaine case marked the first time Chinese customs has worked with U.S. authorities on a drug investigation.

“We hope this will lay out a model for the future,” Fiebig said. He wouldn’t reveal details of the investigation, but said agents “shared intelligence, combined investigation resources and coordinated investigation activities, all in real time.”

Officials said they were still preparing charges against the nine suspects, who could face the death penalty in China if convicted of smuggling. No requests have been received to extradite the two Colombian suspects from Hong Kong to their homeland, they said.