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Smuggling increases in times of crisis

Viviana Chan

It has been a constant problem in Macau, especially for those who live near Portas do Cerco. With the arrival of the pandemic, smuggling has proliferated and in 2021 it even quadrupled. Ron Lam, member of the Legislative Assembly, explains that over the last 20 years parallel trade has not been given much importance and that now the fruits are reaping. At a time when the economic recession takes away job opportunities for young people, smuggling welcomes them

Since the first outbreak in 2020, the issue of smuggling in Macau has become a popular topic among the population, in addition to the virus and economic recession.

Parallel trade becomes a source of income for lower classes

In an interview with PLATAFORMA, Ron Lam U Tou, a member of the Legislative Assembly, explains that due to the fact that both Hong Kong and Macau are free ports, the different tariff regimes imposed in these regions and in Mainland China have resulted in a disparity in prices for certain products. , a phenomenon especially evident in Macau. “In Macau we can see that a walking distance of eight to 10 minutes (to Zhuhai) results in different prices for the same product, this disparity naturally creates demand among parallel trade.”

Due to the pandemic, for about two and a half years the regular functioning of customs control between Hong Kong and the mainland has been affected, leading Macau, indirectly, by maintaining relatively normal customs control, to become an optimal channel. for smuggling. The deputy mentions that this price difference encourages a huge flow of goods, “many people bring small amounts of products for sale from time to time, so they are difficult to control.”

Ron Lam U Tou says in a humorous tone: “Ever since I was in primary school I remember talking about fighting parallel trade in Macau, but unfortunately it is only recently that the government seems to take the problem seriously.” The deputy comments that this can be demonstrated by the fact that the authorities do not disclose information on the number of these traders and the amount of goods seized before 2020, as they did not look at smuggling seriously before the pandemic. “We cannot deny that parallel trade has become a source of income for the lower classes, despite being present in Macau over the 20 years since the transfer of sovereignty.”

According to the deputy’s remarks, unemployment is a gigantic obstacle for the city with the current pressure of the economic recession. In this social context, more and more young people in Macau join this activity. “Due to unemployment, when we receive visits to the deputies’ office looking for help, several mention having sold cigarettes at the border to earn some extra income while unemployed.”

Growing parallel trade by Macao residents

Although it is generally assumed that the biggest participants in this type of trade are outside workers who regularly travel between Zhuhai and Macau, according to the city’s customs services, there was only a difference of 13 between the number of local residents and foreign residents involved in smuggling. in the year 2020 (Fig. 2). 189 were foreigners, 202 Macao residents and 244 Mainland residents. However, there is no statistical analysis on whether or not most of these traders have family visiting visas.

The number of Macao residents committing smuggling has grown over the past few years. In 2021, 592 Macau residents, 639 Mainland residents and 2014 foreign residents were arrested, a multiple growth compared to the previous year. This year, among the traders held until June, 676 were foreign residents, 509 Macau residents and 267 mainland residents.

More than 100 million goods seized in recent years

According to the data provided by the Customs Services to the PLATAFORMA, it was only from 2020 that the number of detained traders began to be formally classified. According to the information shared, a total of 651 people were involved in parallel trade in 2020, a number that quadrupled in 2021 to 3,311 people. Until June 30, 1534 traders were arrested, more than double the number recorded in 2020.

With a greater number of smuggling cases, the value of seized goods also grew. In 2020, these goods represented a total of 82 million patacas. In 2021, this total was 127 million patacas, that is, an annual growth of 55 percent. However, in the first half of this year alone, a total of 122 million in products were seized, a number similar to last year’s total.

Macao’s customs services explain that in the past this trade followed a single mode of operation, mainly with alcohol, dairy products and other essential goods being sold. Most are cash sales, where goods once purchased are transported to various collection points on the mainland where they are resold at a profit. The Macao Customs Service says: “Over the past few years, parallel trade activities have increased, also leading to an increase in the number of smuggling shops, mainly with high-value goods, such as beauty products, leather goods, consoles, video games, electronics and dry goods (such as abalone, shark fin and swallow’s nest).” The Customs Services state that they will indict any citizens involved in this activity under the “External Trade Law”. After the offense and judgment are confirmed, the seized goods will be returned to the Macao SAR.

Target of public criticism

At the end of February, an asymptomatic case of Covid-19 was recorded in Tanzhou, Zhongshan. According to the epidemiological investigation, the infected person had made five visits to Zhuhai and Macau in just one day, always visiting the same store in the Port of Gongbei. Authorities ruled that the person was involved in activities outside of his status, and that he had traveled between the two locations multiple times due to smuggling. The Public Security Police decided to ban the citizen from entering Macau for a period of one year, committing to implement identical actions in similar cases.

This case has once again turned parallel trade into an issue debated by both the authorities and the community, with several Mainland residents holding visas to visit family members and mainland workers who travel between Zhuhai and Macau daily becoming “targets” of the combat this practice.

In accordance with Article 10 of the “Law for the prevention, control and treatment of communicable diseases”, since March 14, Macau Health Services have required visa holders to visit family members with three or more entries through Portas do Cerco or Qingmao Border Post a self-funded nucleic acid test, with entry blocked until test results are available. Citizens flagged for this additional control will be directed to a specific test site, where they will wait for the results to enter the border, a process that can take up to 12 hours. If the individual refuses to be tested, he or she may be denied entry.

There is even a Facebook group for citizens concerned about this criminal activity. Created in March 2021, the “Group Concerned About Parallel Commerce (Macao)” has already amassed more than 1000 members. They occasionally share suspicious smuggling activities on the social network, information they make public in the hope that the authorities will do their due diligence.

The Macao Customs Services say they have improved their mechanisms for sharing information with the Public Security Police, as well as their cooperation with the mainland authorities to gain greater knowledge about the activities of these traders. Customs services are still looking more closely at passengers and vehicles crossing the border. In addition to combating these organized groups, investigations are organized together with the Public Security Police and other official bodies to discover contraband distribution points.

Use of technology to combat parallel trade

According to information provided by the Customs Services to Plataforma, a “tourist filtering assistance system” has already been developed, applicable to border control with the mainland, in operation since May. Customs stresses that there is no “target” during this control, the “tourist filtering assistance system” was created to assist customs officers in identifying at-risk citizens more efficiently. “Customs officers transport individuals considered “at risk” to a sorting area where they, as well as their luggage, are screened through a non-intrusive mechanism. Equipment used includes security sensors with terahertz radiation, X-ray or TAC systems for both luggage and products.”

Ron Lam U Tou says that what the Customs Service does is collect information about passengers. The control process for citizens who cross the border regularly is becoming more and more difficult, and together with the possible suspension of the provisional residence permit (known as “blue card”) of foreign workers who take advantage of this parallel trade, the power to control deterrent seems to be sufficient.

According to information provided by the Public Security Police, between January and February of this year, 8 foreign workers had already been arrested for smuggling activities, whose blue cards were revoked. In March, 40 citizens of Mainland China were also identified as holders of visas to visit family members and 9 non-resident workers who were denied entry to the border due to smuggling activity.

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