CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Saturday, 21 April 2018

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Mom, when are you coming home?

“Mom, when are you coming back? When you come back, mother”? The seven-year-old girl repeated the question several times into the tape recorder. 
 
She thinks her mother is working abroad, but in fact, the 44-year-old Brazilian has been in a correctional centre for the past three years on the other side of the world after being arrested at Hong Kong International airport with drugs in her luggage. 
 
It will be at least another seven years until she has finished serving her sentence and is able to reunite with her family.
 
The person holding the tape recorder was Father John Wotherspoon, 71-year-old Australian Oblate Missionary who has lived in Hong Kong for 33 years and has worked with detainees in Hong Kong correctional centres for almost 20 years.
 
The priest spent a week in São Paulo after touring eight other countries in Latin America announcing his campaign No More Mules, seeking to make people aware of not becoming mules for international drug trafficking—a function carried out mainly by poor women, he notes.
 
Father Wotherspoon’s trip to Latin America began in late December and took him through Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia, Peru, Suriname, Bolivia, Paraguay and Argentina before arriving here in Brazil which he regards as a crucial destination because, he says, São Paulo is the starting point for most Latin American drug mules. 
 
“There is a city-based Nigerian gang that recruits people in several countries to act as mules. They come here, take the drugs and board at Guarulhos airport, “he says, adding that security at the Brazilian airport is faulty.
 
According to Father Wotherspoon, there are currently 140 Latin American prisoners in Hong Kong—of these he estimates that 12 are Brazilians; six men and six women.
 
In each country he visited, the priest convened the detainees’ families to hand out letters and photos, give information about each one’s situation and encourage groups to exchange information about the lawsuits. He also asked them to record messages that will be played on a radio in the correctional centre that the inmates can listen to.
 
According to Father Wotherspoon, most prisoners who reached Hong Kong as mules had no prior connection with drug trafficking. 
 
“They are simple people, who desperately need money to support their families or pay a debt. Traffickers recruit these vulnerable people, particularly women,” he says. He also says there are some detainees who have been beaten and forced to embark after threats from the criminals.
 
Cocaine—usually one to three kilos—goes in the case, concealed in every kind of object, or in the body, even by swallowing capsules. Hong Kong is not always the final stop. In some cases, the destinations are countries that have the death penalty for anyone caught. 
 
“There are prisoners who were bound to go to China, Malaysia, Singapore. Some did not even know they were subject to death penalty,” reports the priest.
 
In the case of a 26-year-old Brazilian woman who, at age 24, was caught using drugs in Hong Kong.  Her mother thanks God that she was caught in Hong Kong. If she had been arrested on the country of her destination, she would be subject to capital punishment. 
 
“Thank God, she can get up to 16 years in jail, but it’s not the death penalty,” says her mother.
 
Another woman from São Paolo travelled to Asia in 2015 without telling the family. After going to the police and reporting her disappearance on social networks, her mother learned of the arrest. 
 
“I never knew that she had a passport. It was a shock for us. She used to be an example for the family, very educated, good, always attentive to everyone”, her mother cries. Communication with the daughter takes place by letter and by telephone. 
 
Inmates are entitled to only one 10-minute call per month—their only contact with family apart from letters, since the financial situation of the families makes it difficult to make a trip to the other side of the world. 
 
“We even thought about going there, but it’s very expensive. We need $8000 for the ticket. And my brother can only receive two visits of 15 minutes per month. Our will is to go, but with our financial conditions, it is impossible”, says the sister of one of the prisoners.
 
Most drug mules in Hong Kong prisons are victims of threats, violence and abuses. Father Wotherspoon knows some of the extreme cases. 
 
For example, a three-month-old Venezuelan woman who came to São Paulo was attracted by a false job offer and fell into the hands of traffickers who raped her for three weeks and forced her to go to Asia with drugs. 
 
“Since she had provided all her and her family’s data to get the alleged job, the coup men threatened her by saying they would hurt their relatives if she did not agree to travel with the drug,” he said.
 
Venezuelans who suffer from the country’s socio-economic crisis are also among the main targets of drug traffickers today, according to the Australian priest. 
 
In Colombia, the home country of half of the Latin Americans imprisoned in Hong Kong, the number of mules has been decreasing. In addition to Latin America, Africa is the continent that most sends mules to Asia, the priest adds.
 
Father Wotherspoon has made other trips similar to this one to Africa. According to him, the number of drug mules declined in some countries after he publicised his campaign and talked to airport security officials. One of the main methods of raising awareness of the No More Mules campaign is the dissemination of letters from repentant prisoners.
 
He estimates he has found the relatives of 50 Latin American prisoners he met in Hong Kong’s penitentiaries. 
 
“I’m sorry for the families. It is very sad to see the woman without the husband or the husband without the woman or worse still, the children without the mother or the father. I hope my trip will help change that,” he says.
 
These journeys are funded by donations from Hong Kong residents who accompany him in his work in prisons and with homeless people.