Vietnam to investigate how airplane full of heroin cleared customs

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Ho Chi Minh City's Tan Son Nhat International Airport a major gateway for drug smuggling in the region

Taiwan police said on November 17 they had cracked a major drug ring, confiscating 229 kilograms (504 pounds) of heroin in their biggest seizure of the drug for 20 years. Vietnam has begun an investigation into how the consignment got through Ho Chi Minh City's Tan Son Nhat International Airport. PHOTO: AFP

Vietnamese agencies are investigating claims that Ho Chi Minh City customs may have let a shipment of 229 kilograms of heroin fly to Taiwan via cargo plane without screening it.

Taiwanese authorities made the discovery and confiscated the drugs on November 17. An officer with Vietnam Customs' anti-smuggling division told Vietweek on the condition of anonymity that the 12 empty stereo speakers in which the drugs were hidden had been loaded at Tan Son Nhat.

The big smuggle

The Ministry of Public Security will coordinate with local and foreign agencies to clarify the origins of the drug and investigate the alleged smugglers.

According to Taiwanese media, the Criminal Investigation Bureau seized 600 packages of heroin hidden in stereo speakers, the largest drug bust Taiwan has seen in two decades.

The packages had been smeared with chocolate to avoid detection by dogs.

The narcotics could have been sold for a total of US$300 million, the bureau was quoted as saying.

Following the confiscation, bureau officers arrested seven people suspected of being involved in heroin smuggling operations who have been monitored since last year.

According to the Civil Aviation Authority of Vietnam, the China Airlines cargo aircraft departed from Penang, Malaysia, and transited at HCMC's Tan Son Nhat airport, before heading to Taiwan's Taoyuan International Airport.

More goods were loaded onto the plane while in transit, according to the authority.

People with experience sending consignments abroad through Tan Son Nhat airport said screenings are usually very strict and authorities would not have missed such a large amount of drugs.

An employee of a logistics company on Cong Hoa Street, who wanted to be identified only as H., said airport staff always inspects his goods very carefully.

"Even ordinary goods, which are not listed as dangerous or poisonous - and even when the exporter has no tax debt - are thoroughly scanned," he said.

"Anything will be detected by the scanner. No exporter can cheat. Thus, certainly there is some problem at the customs clearance," he said.

A representative of an import-export company in District 3 who also requested anonymity said the drugs would have been detected by the scanner.

The airport customs agency and the city customs agency were unavailable for comment as of press time.

Transit point

A Tan Son Nhat official said the airport is a common gateway for drug criminals because it is a major airport in the region with a rapid increase in passengers over the past few years.

The airport serves about 150 international flights with more than 15,000 passengers and hundreds of tons of goods on a daily basis, he said.

Tan Son Nhat customs agency has detected 34 cases of drug trafficking over the past year, seizing more than 100 kilograms of drugs and 2,060 methamphetamine tablets.

According to HCMC Customs Agency, criminals often use the airport to smuggle drugs into Vietnam or as a transit point before carrying drugs to a third country.

Last week, the agency said it had handed over a 31-year-old passenger for smuggling 2 kilograms of methamphetamine in his luggage while entering Vietnam.

A new section of airport customs set up more than a year ago to inspect express mail services also found dozens of parcels containing drugs.

Do Thanh Quang, chief of the airport customs agency, said drug smuggling through Tan Son Nhat has increased in recent years.

He said drugs have been hidden in toys, cosmetics or mixed with water and absorbed in towels.

Recently, many criminals have hired students or women with small children to smuggle drug.

At a recent anti-drug conference in HCMC, Nguyen Thi Thu Huong, chief of the HCMC Customs Agency, also said her agency had found drugs in consignments declared to be coffee, sesame and dried fruits.

In other cases, they even mixed drugs in food additives and seasonings, she said.

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