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Hong Kong drug convictions highlight growing trade

By Diego Laje, CNN
June 6, 2013 -- Updated 0351 GMT (1151 HKT)
A policeman guards a selection of confiscated cocaine from one of the largest hauls in Hong Kong history on September 18, 2011.
A policeman guards a selection of confiscated cocaine from one of the largest hauls in Hong Kong history on September 18, 2011.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Woman claimed she was unaware her husband and her were trafficking drugs
  • Drug haul of 1,285 pounds of cocaine was one of biggest in Hong Kong
  • Hong Kong is becoming a transit post for dealers bringing drugs into China

Hong Kong (CNN) -- On the stand for drug trafficking, Talina Prieto Vazquez tearfully insisted she didn't know that when her husband brought her to Hong Kong she would be taking part in one of the city's largest ever cocaine trafficking cases.

Prieto Vazquez, 29, had been caught with 538 kilograms of cocaine (about 1,285 pounds), worth some $65 million. She was among a group of five Mexicans and one American - including her husband Josué Mario Bravo Galindo - that police arrested in Tuen Mun, northern Hong Kong, in September, 2011.

Their three-year-old son was also taken into custody following the raid.

"My baby is the most important thing in my life," Prieto Vazquez said during her trial in May.

The drug case highlighted the role Hong Kong plays as a staging post in a booming trade between Latin American drug producers and a growing illegal drug market in mainland China. Judge Gareth Lugar-Mawson, presiding over the case, said during the trial that the "majority of that cocaine would most likely go out of Hong Kong into the mainland."

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Authorities have seized increasingly larger illegal drug shipments over the past few years as the mainland's appetite for so-called luxury drugs like cocaine grows.

Since the 2011 bust, Hong Kong's record was broken in 2012, with a 649 kilogram seizure, which was worth $98 million.

While Hong Kong has strong sentences for drug trafficking, there is no capital punishment for offenders unlike in mainland China, making the city a favored transit post for drug traffickers, experts say.

The number of smaller traffickers, called mules, has also sharply increased in local prisons. A year ago, 20 Colombians were caught at Hong Kong's borders carrying smaller amounts of narcotics on them. Since April 2012, the local consulate recorded 45 new arrests.

Prieto Vazquez claims that hardship forced her family into the drug trade.

During the two-week trial, her husband told the court he had gotten into a $35,000 debt with loan sharks in Mexico. Unable to repay and under threats of violence, he was offered the opportunity to "work off" the debt.

"I was told that I had to come to Hong Kong and, here, I'd receive further instructions," Bravo Galindo said from the witness stand. But it ended with the whole family in custody in Hong Kong, according to Prieto Vazquez' defense.

Her husband was trying to deceive the police behind the façade of a family tour, Prieto Vazquez' defense lawyer Keith Odeberg said in court.

"Bravo Galindo pressured [his wife] to come to Hong Kong and use [his family] as cover -- that was his secret agenda," Odeberg said in his closing statement, to justify his client's claim she didn't know about the narcotics.

Prosecutor John Murray asked why their trip to Asia was to take seven weeks, as this would mean Prieto Vazquez would have needed substantial holiday time from her nursing assistant job in Mexico.

Mexican law allows six to 12 days yearly paid leave for people at the beginning of their careers. Murray questioned the family's story during his cross-examination of Bravo Galindo.

"I'm going to put to (you) that you are lying," he told the 33-year-old witness. Bravo Galindo, through a Spanish translation, denied it.

During her statements in court, Prieto Vazquez maintained her innocence. Authorities arrested her walking out of a warehouse in northern Hong Kong where hundreds of kilos of cocaine were found and six kilos of the drug were in her purse.

"I cannot prove that I didn't know there were drugs in my bag, but I will not give up, because God knows it and I didn't know anything," Prieto Vazquez insisted in court. The all-female jury, however, brought back a verdict of guilty. She was sentenced to 27 years in prison.

Her husband, Bravo Galindo, received a lighter sentence for his guilty plea and was jailed for 24 years and eight months.

Meanwhile, their toddler will be raised by relatives of the father in Mexico. He will spend time with different members of his family, but will not know a stable family life, Odeberg said in court.

Eudora Wong contributed to this report

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