BEIJING – Chinese and U.S. officials announced Tuesday the arrest of nine people and the seizure of a record amount of cocaine in a cross-border drug bust that underscored China's increasing role in world trade of all kinds.
A Chinese television news report Tuesday showed a locker stacked high with dozens of bricks of cocaine smuggled from Colombia. A reporter was shown peeling the tape and paper away from one of the packages to reveal a traditional Chinese yin-yang symbol embossed on the solid white block.
Officers confiscated 314 pounds of Colombian cocaine, along with the equivalent of about $25,000 in Chinese and Hong Kong currency, said Liu Guangping, spokesman for the Customs General Administration of China.
It was the largest seizure of cocaine in China ever made, Liu told a news conference.
Those held included two Colombian nationals arrested in Hong Kong, along with suspects from Hong Kong and mainland China, China's customs agency and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration said.
State television showed plainclothes officers tackling suspects from behind and throwing them to the ground on the street and in a department store.
The case illustrates how South American drug gangs are aggressively moving into Asia to exploit new markets and expand their global distribution chains, said William Fiebig, a DEA special agent based in Beijing.
"It's a market, a huge market," said Fiebig. "Why are other businesses coming to Asia?"
Chinese and U.S. authorities have been stepping up cooperation in recent years as the drug trade between the two countries grows. But the case marked the first time Chinese customs has worked with U.S. authorities on a drug investigation, Fiebig and Chinese officials said.
The arrests and seizures were made March 15-17 following an investigation that began Jan. 11 and were aided by key intelligence from the DEA, Liu said.
Most of the drugs were found hidden inside a wooden bed frame in Zhongshan, an industrial district in southern China just hours from the border with Hong Kong, Liu said.
He said Chinese agents have recorded a 435 percent rise in the amount of drugs seized in the first three months of this year from a year earlier.
"It's pretty clear from this just how daunting a task we face," Liu said.
Fiebig said the investigation revealed an alliance between Colombian drug gangs and those from Hong Kong and mainland China to distribute "multi-hundred kilogram (pound) quantities" of cocaine in Asia.
"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.
Officials said they were still preparing charges against the nine arrested, who potentially face the death penalty in China if convicted of smuggling.
No requests have been received on behalf of the two Colombian suspects to extradite them from Hong Kong to their homeland, they said.