CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Saturday, 15 December 2018

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A one-man army waging war on drugs

From December last year through early January, 72-year-old Australian Father John Wotherspoon, of the Order of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, travelled through Latin America last this year with a unique message: No more mules, in a campaign against drug mules to Asia. A mule refers to a drug carrier who smuggles illegal substances from African and Latin American countries for the Asian market.  
 
His journey began on 26 December 2017 in Mexico from where he passed through Colombia, Venezuela, Suriname, Peru, Bolivia and Paraguay before arriving in Argentina.
 
Father Wotherspoon was born in Brisbane, Australia in 1946 and became a priest in 1973. He has been in Hong Kong since 1985 and is a stranger to no one be it in church or in social circles in the territory. 
 
He has been fighting an anti-drug campaign since 2013 and, in 2017, the South China Morning Post, the leading English-language daily honoured him with the Spirit of Hong Kong Award for his outstanding service to the community. 
 
As a prison chaplain, he has encountered numerous smugglers who want their family and friends to stop bringing drugs into Hong Kong and stay out of jail.
 
It was in 2012 that he noticed that there was an increase in the number of Tanzanians turning up in Hong Kong prisons compared to the previous year. 
 
By mid-2013 there were 33 of them, almost one per week, who were detained at the airport for possesion of cocaine in amounts ranging from 500 grammes to two kilogrammes. 
 
According to Hong Kong law, carrying between 600 grammes and 1.2 kilogrammes of this drug can incur a sentence of up to 24 years in prison.
 
He began to spread the word about what was happening among his acquaintances in that region, urging them to tell people not to come, but without success. He decided to take action on the matter. 
 
Father Wotherspoon asked one of the Tanzanian prisoners to write a letter and share his experience with the rest of the world, and it became a very powerful testimony because he even mentioned some of those who ran the drug business. 
 
The priest also published the letter in his blog which had 5,000 visits in a week. He also forwarded the letter to the main media agencies in Tanzania. The result? In the following eight months there was only one mule. The authorities upped their security and improved the checks at Kilimanjaro airport. 
 
In 2014, there was a new jump in the number of inmates who were drug mules. This prompted Father Wootherspoon to travel in person to Tanzania in 2015 where he met with newspaper, radio and television journalists and was able to give much more detailed explanations on what the problem was, and how it could be tackled. Most of the mass media in Dodoma, the capital city, gave prime coverage to the campaign.
 
“For the past 10 years I have been one of almost 30 chaplains     of various religions authorised to work in Hong Kong prisons. Until a few years ago I went to prisons between five and six days a week. At one point I realised that it was better to prevent than to cure, and that’s how I started with this campaign,” the priest said, explaining the genesis of his efforts to combat the mules. 
 
In 2016, he visited Kenya and Uganda, and in 2017, he went to South Africa, Lesotho and Zambia, to continue his campaign. 
 
According to the numbers, these efforts have been successful: in 2016 there were three mules from Tanzania. For all of Africa, there were 47 in 2015, 26 in 2016 and approximately eight in 2017. 
 
The decrease in the number of arrests is an achievement that Father Wotherspoon attributes in large extent to the publicity that has been generated around the issue. 
 
The last part of his trip in early January this year was in São Paulo, Brazil, the epicenter of a criminal network, operated mostly by Nigerians, which he says is responsible for directing a flow of drugs to China, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and Hong Kong. 
 
“Somehow, those who come to me are the lucky ones, because in Hong Kong there is no death penalty and the guilty only receive a long stay in prison. If they catch a foreigner with drugs in some of the other countries in the region, the pain can be a bullet in the head,” Father Wotherspoon said. 
 
According to his personal account, there are some 140 detainees from South America, 70 of whom are Colombian. There are also Venezuelans, Paraguayans and Peruvians counted among them. 
 
Throughout his 30-day journey through the Latin American countries, he managed to contact the media so they could spread word of what was happening, as well as establish contact with the relatives of the detainees. 
 
He began by asking the prisoners to write letters to their relatives, which he later brought with him and, in turn, he returned with answers from those same relatives. 
 
“These drug networks exploit poor women, with promises that they will take them out of the situation. Before, they used only young people and teenagers, while in recent years many are low-income women, including pregnant women and grandmothers who are desperate because of the lack of money,” the priest explained. 
 
Despite the decidedly tragic outlook of the matter, Father Wotherspoon is determined to clarify that those who are detained in Hong Kong can be considered relatively lucky. Its prisons are among the best in the world: prisoners eat three times a day, have medical coverage, can exercise, study and even work for a salary. 
 
These efforts have not come without some bitter gripes, even from those who are not part of the criminal network he seeks to imprison. 
 
“Recently they called me a murderer in Tanzania, because they say that having eliminated the mule trips to Asia, drug traffickers leave the drugs in the country, which has led to more drugs and violence in the country,” Father Wotherspoon said.