“I DON’T think there’s any need to be afraid,” said the young lady sitting across the table. “It’s because of fear that no one dares to stand up, and more and more people become victims.”
Jennifer* is determined to bring to justice the drug syndicate leaders who recruited her brother, Simon, as a drug mule.
“Every time I visit my brother or receive his letters, I feel so heartbroken. He’s not a bad person, just very naive, and now his future is ruined while these ‘friends’ who recruited him are out there enjoying life,” she said.
“But this isn’t just about my brother. If we don’t do something, these syndicates will continue ruining the lives of so many other families.”
Jennifer is just one of several family members of imprisoned Malaysian drug mules who are helping Father John Wotherspoon’s campaign (read Chapter Two, “The Drug-busting Priest”).
This unlikely alliance of families, mostly from lower-income communities, are now ready to speak up against the syndicates who have been using Malaysian mules to help flood the region with unprecedented amounts of synthetic drugs.
Aided by Wotherspoon, the families are exchanging notes and piecing together evidence against the syndicates, slowly but surely.
The syndicates have always counted on being able to isolate and intimidate families into staying silent – but not this time.
“We want to create a support group for these families, and hopefully work with them to help the authorities take action. That could help the mules’ cases in Hong Kong too,” said Wotherspoon.
Jennifer has been investigating her brother’s case on her own, and despite having a regular day job, has amassed an impressive amount of information.
“My brother had been missing for a few months, and we didn’t know what had happened to him. I called his girlfriend, but she kept ignoring my calls.
“When she finally picked up, she pretended to be someone else, so I said I was going to make a police report. That’s when she came clean,” said Jennifer.
That’s how Jennifer finally learned that her brother was in prison on drug trafficking charges, and that his girlfriend had been threatened by the syndicates to stay silent.
Simon had sent his girlfriend a flurry of WeChat screenshots of his conversations with the recruiters, seemingly alarmed after learning that he was being used to traffic drugs for them.
Using the names and pictures contained in the screenshots, Jennifer was able to identify a list of suspects.
“One of them, who seems to be the boss, happens to have been from the same secondary school Simon and I went to.
“I asked my former schoolmates about him, and they were all too afraid to say much,” she said.
But Jennifer is not afraid. She is ready to pass on all the information to the authorities – names, phone numbers, photos, etc.
“I found some of (the recruiters) on Facebook, and these guys are in their 20s and 30s, going to clubs every night, surrounding themselves with beautiful girls and giving them branded gifts.
“It just makes me so angry, because they have destroyed so many innocent lives. My brother says some of those with him in prison are as young as 18! These are kids who don’t know how to think for themselves,” she said, welling up in anger.
The family of another mule, Dinesh, is also pushing back.
Dinesh’s elderly father was so desperate that he confronted his son’s recruiter in person. He found him at the restaurant next to his son’s college, still recruiting students.
The recruiter appeared to be backed by a local gang. But Dinesh’s father was determined.
“I told him he must come with me to the police, and tell them that he did this to my son, so we can bring him back,” he said.
Seemingly moved by the father’s bravery, the recruiter agreed to go to the Malaysian police headquarters to give a statement, and provide some form of testimony for Dinesh’s trial in Hong Kong.
A lawyer offered to help with the process, and the father, a former lorry driver, used almost his entire retirement fund to pay for his services.
Over a year passed, and all he got was a single written testimony, one which we were told would hardly stand in court.
The father now suspects the lawyer - who has now cut off all contact with them - was working with the recruiter the entire time, leaving his family in dire financial straits.
Dinesh has been in prison for over two years now, and the time apart is taking a toll on his father.
“He is such a loving person, a loving son to us. There’s nothing bad I can say about him,” said the father.
“And he was always a good student – he got straight As in his secondary school exams, and he was one of the top students in college too.
“If he is convicted, for sure it will be the end of me. I will drink poison and die. If he gets over 20 years (in prison), I will leave this earth.”
Shirley’s parents too, are doing whatever they can to track down the teenager who recruited their daughter (read Chapter One), and have joined the alliance of families providing information to the police.
But then came a major breakthrough, thanks to Wotherspoon’s tireless work visiting and counselling mules back in Hong Kong.
Before his trip to Malaysia, he met with Sharon, one of the latest Malaysian mules to land in a Hong Kong prison.
Sharon, a single mother desperate for money, had taken up Arwind’s offer of a job with his “licensed courier company”. She flew to Hong Kong to meet Shanker’s boss (the drug lord, Chapter Five), who then sent her to another South-East Asian country to bring a bag back to Hong Kong. That’s when she was arrested.
But Sharon’s brother, Thinesh, was determined to blow everything wide open. Enraged, he started tracking down the families of other drug mules sent by Shanker’s network, to gather evidence.
During his last trip in Malaysia, Wotherspoon travelled several hours to meet with Thinesh and to help him connect the dots with all the other families.
By then, Thinesh had managed to get enough information to get the local authorities’ attention, despite threats against his life.
He claims he was ambushed by a group of men when he was following up on a lead in Shanker’s hometown, and barely escaped with his life. He believes Shanker had paid a gang to have him killed.
“A lot of gangsters came to meet me and threaten me, but I’m not scared of them, because I have the evidence,” said Thinesh resolutely. Now, he also has narcotics officers on his side.
With corroborative intel from Wotherspoon also passed on to the police thanks to SAC Zulkifli Ali’s help, the puzzle was finally complete.
In February 2019, Shanker was detained under the Special Preventive Measures. Narcotics officers showed up at his home, and took him in.
It set off a chain reaction – police were able to round up several of his associates, and more are expected to be detained soon.
Even though it seems Shanker’s syndicate will soon be all but dismantled, there’s not much for the families to celebrate just yet.
There’s no guarantee that his arrest will be able to help the mules in court, and for most of them, going to trial alone will take over two years – that’s how many drug mule cases are pending in Hong Kong now.
“The police in Malaysia told me that whatever we need, whatever evidence or paperwork, they will give it to us,” said Thinesh, his work now almost done.
“They promised they will work with the Hong Kong government. I don’t know how they’re going to do it. I have nothing left to do but wait for good news from them.”
Jennifer still doesn’t have quite enough evidence to bring her brother’s recruiter to justice, and it appears the only way that will happen now is if other witnesses come forward.
The man responsible for recruiting Dinesh was also detained earlier in a separate operation, but despite Dinesh’s family’s best efforts, they have still been unable to get a testimony from him.
They’re getting help from Lawyer Sangeet Kaur Deo, daughter of the late Malaysian politician Karpal Singh. She has offered to advise all the mules’ families pro bono.
As for Shirley’s parents, the teenage recruiter who made their daughter a drug mule is still at large.
In the end, the only consolation for them is that Shirley decided not to risk going to trial, and to plead guilty. They will be able to hold her in their arms again in 7-8 years.
“But a lot can happen in 7-8 years,” said her father. “Who knows? I could be dead by then.”
Back in Hong Kong, Wotherspoon was initially thrilled that no new Malaysian mules had been caught there in the months after Shanker’s arrest. But then last month, two Malaysian mules showed up.
At the very least, there was one happy ending.
The happy ending
After over two-and-a-half years in prison, Nades, the mule who was sent to the Middle East and Hong Kong (read Chapter Four), finally had his day in court. Wotherspoon was scheduled to provide testimony on his behalf later in the week.
Ever since they first met in prison, Wotherspoon has been trying to help Nades, convinced that he was an innocent pawn of the drug syndicates. They spoke regularly during Wotherspoon’s prison visits, and Wotherspoon had spent many months trying to get evidence that could help Nades’ case.
But remarkably, the trial didn’t even last long enough for Wotherspoon’s testimony. According to Wotherspoon, the judge decided to cut the trial short, reminding the jury that there was no evidence Nades had ever touched the drugs hidden in his package of chocolates, putting it to them to make a decision.
That very day, in July 2018, the jury decided that Nades was innocent, and he was freed. Wotherspoon said he had never seen anything like it in all his years in court. “It’s a miracle,” he said.
Nades spent the next few days at a temporary holding facility, and was on the next available flight back to Malaysia.
He was finally able to see his mother again.
“She picked me up at the airport. She immediately broke down in tears,” recalled Nades. Even now, it’s too emotional for Nades to talk about.
Three months later, she finally succumbed to her illness, and passed away.
Fast forward to January 2019. Wotherspoon is nearing the end of his drug-busting expedition in Malaysia, but he can’t leave without seeing Nades. He was acquitted and sent back to Malaysia so suddenly that they never had a chance to say goodbye.
We drove Wotherspoon to the small town about an hour from Kuala Lumpur where Nades is trying to rebuild his life.
We meet at a small, dusty road-side restaurant. It is the first time Wotherspoon has seen Nades as a free man. They immediately embrace each other.
As we sit down for a meal, Wotherspoon brings out his file on Nades, which he can now put back on the shelf at his tiny apartment in Temple Street.
“Do you remember this?” said Wotherspoon, pointing at a number scribbled at the top of the file.
Nades doesn’t even take a look. “17***-**,” he said confidently. “I will never forget my inmate number.”
Nades has found a job working at a factory. It’s hard work, for very little money, but an ex-prisoner doesn’t exactly have options.
“I was very happy when the case was dismissed, but honestly, sometimes things are easier in prison than they are out here,” he said.
Did he try to call the friend who recruited him?
“I did call him, and I think he didn’t recognise my number, so he picked up. I said I wanted to speak to his brother, the leader of the gang. He said he would arrange it.
“But I’ve never heard from him since, and he has stopped taking my calls,” he said.
We asked if he’s afraid they will come after him, now that he’s back in Malaysia.
“I’m not afraid, because these guys are cowards,” he said.
In fact, he is ready to testify against them if it could help his cellmate in Hong Kong – Dinesh, whose father is still waiting anxiously for his case to be heard.
“They are all cowards. They don’t dare to do the dirty work themselves, so they keep getting young people to do it.
“I will do anything you need me to, as long as it can help Dinesh,” he added.
Before we leave, Wotherspoon gives Nades an envelope of money, to help him get back on his feet. He is reluctant to accept.
“Don’t worry, it’s a donation, from people who support our work,” said Wotherspoon.
Nades takes the money, they embrace again, and we drove Wotherspoon back to his hotel in Kuala Lumpur. Hopefully, it won’t be the last time they meet, as Nades’ testimony could be crucial in Dinesh’s case.
But for now, Wotherspoon is basking in a rare moment of joy amidst all the destruction wrecked by the drug syndicates.
“It really is such a great feeling, seeing one of them outside of prison. Just wonderful.”
Read all six chapters of The Malaysian Drug Trade at rage.my/drugtrade.
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