Luggage swap modus: PH tourist 'didn't know' drugs in bag
HONG KONG – A Filipina tourist who has pleaded guilty to a charge of trafficking in dangerous drugs revealed a new modus operandi by drug syndicates: befriending their targeted "mules" or carriers right at the Manila airport before convincing them to swap suitcases.
Catherine Bustillo, a young mother who delivered her baby while in custody, admitted in Eastern Court the charge that she brought into Hong Kong 1.745 kilos of cocaine worth $1.774 million (P10 million) on February 2.
She was arrested by Hong Kong Customs officers upon her arrival from Manila after the drug was found hidden in secret compartments of a suitcase in her hand-carried luggage.
Magistrate Lee Siu-ho said that as drug trafficking is a serious offense that calls for a maximum penalty of life imprisonment, he would have to commit the Filipina to the Court of First Instance for sentencing.
In the meantime, he ordered Bustillo to be remanded in custody, telling her she had the right to apply for bail at the Court.
Details of the case were read to Bustillo for the first time after she pleaded guilty on September 25.
The 29-year-old Filipina, who was pregnant at the time, said she came to Hong Kong to buy clothes for her baby.
In a statement she gave to investigators, Bustillo said a woman named Leonda who she met at the Manila airport offered to replace the defendant's heavy suitcase with her own, even volunteering to transfer the contents of Bustillo's luggage to the new suitcase.
Leonda allegedly told her she would be flying to Hong Kong two days later anyway and would meet her in a hotel in Tsimshatsui to pick up the suitcase.
Bustillo said she did not know that the suitcase contained the illegal drug. She said she never knew if Leonda had indeed come to Hong Kong on February 4 because by then she was already in police custody.
The prosecution report said Customs officers went to the hotel to check if there was any guest by the name of Leonda but there was none. A check with Cebu Pacific also showed that there was no such passenger traveling to Hong Kong on that date.
Two other Filipinas who were arrested earlier in the year for separate drug trafficking offenses appeared in the same court on September 25, the so-called return day, when defendants are given another chance to plead guilty and avert a costly trial.
Veronica Baylon, a former domestic worker who overstayed her visa after being terminated by her employer on May 17, 2010, was charged with trafficking in a dangerous drug and breaching her condition of stay.
A prosecution report said Baylon was arrested after she yielded 25.2 grams of suspected ice during a police raid on a hotel room in North Point. Her companions Crescencio Patungan and Leah San Esteban were also arrested and charged for possession of smaller amounts of the drug.
Lee ordered Baylon to return on October 23 and reminded her to make up her mind on whether to plead guilty; otherwise, her trial would proceed.
The third Filipina who returned to court on September 25 was Florence de Pedro, who was facing charges of manufacturing illegal drugs and trafficking in about 16 grams of cocaine, methampethamine and heroin.
Her case was initially heard at Kowloon City Court in July but was later transferred to the Eastern Court.
Bustillo's arrest underscores Manila's vulnerability as a transshipment point for drug exports of Latin American cartels that take advantage of Filipinos' visa-free entry to Hong Kong and countries in Southeast Asia.
On September 5, tourist Ma Cristina Dia was arrested upon arrival at the airport after the discovery of 1.3 kilos of suspected cocaine in secret compartments of her luggage. She was charged with trafficking in dangerous drugs.
In December last year, a Filipina domestic helper was nabbed at Hong Kong airport after 2.26 kilos of cocaine worth $2.4 million was found molded into pairs of ladies shoes in her luggage and tucked in her waist.
Monica Eden's arrest has prompted Consulate officials to warn Filipina domestic helpers attending post-arrival orientation seminars to be wary of strangers befriending and requesting them to carry packages for them. – Rappler.com
This story was republished with permission from The SUN-HK, a content partner of Rappler