Airports narcotics detection technology battles determined drug traffickers

By Gugu Lourie

For whatever reason airline passengers at airports make mental notes of the people around them.

I recently observed a well-dressed ‘gentleman’ at an airport in China. He walked with an obvious swagger. For me there was nothing about him that alarmed me or suggested he could be up to no good. After all this was Beijing Capital International Airport.

Perhaps he sensed that my travelling companions and I were not overtly averse to his presence. Not surprisingly the well-dressed ‘gentleman’ decided to sit next to us.

He had arrived “in style” at the boarding gates for a Qatar Airways flight to Hamad International Airport in Doha, the capital city of Qatar.

We had earlier noticed him riding on what looked like a golf cart. He and another person rode the cart for about a kilometre to the boarding area, while the rest of the passengers walked the distance.

Once there, my fellow scribes Hans van de Groenendaal “the Dutchmen” of EngineerIT and Kathy Gibson from IT-Online and I sat down to wait to be called to board the plane.

I noticed the well-dressed ‘gentleman’ was staring at me. Each time I looked in his direction his eyes were on me. A bit flustered I decided to get a TsingTao beer from a nearby vending machine, some 200 metres away from where we had been sitting.

When I came back I noticed that the well-dressed ‘gentleman’ still had his eyes fixated on me. Eventually he walked towards me. He sat next to me.

“I am also going to Johannesburg like you and am desperately seeking your help,” he said.

All the time his piercing eyes stayed glued on me.

He paused for a while, rubbed his big nose, and then blurted out: “I have three bags and they will not let me in at the boarding gate.”

Still in my face, he softened his approach and pleaded:

“Could you please take one of the bags my friend and take it inside the plane. Please my friend, help me, it’s so easy.”

Not impressed by his request, I said in my sternest voice:  “Look here, I am not in Beijing to carry anyone’s bag or your bag for that matter. I will not do that and please leave me in peace and not in pieces.”

Gibson quickly added: “No, no, we are not carrying anyone’s bag.”

Instinctively I held my bag tightly.

The gentleman sighed and said: “Okay, okay, I just wonder who is going to help me now.”

He cut a dejected figure. His eyes seemed to turn red as if was about to cry. His hands shook.

My colleague “the Dutchmen”, said: “You did well Gugu.”

There was no need to say anything. We all knew the unwritten rules of travelling – never carry anyone else’s bag past a security check point.

The ‘gentleman’ disappeared for a while and only returned when the announcement to board the plane was made. He was with the same man he rode the cart with.

He was carrying three small bags, one in front, another on his back and third down his side, partially obscured by a suit bag he held in his hand.

The other man had a big Gucci travelling bag with wheels. As we got close to the boarding gate the pair separated.

The ‘gentleman’ with three bags went in front. Predictably he was stopped. While the customs officers spoke to him, his colleague zoomed past along with other passengers.

We all watched in amazement as the scene played out in front of us.

After a brief exchange the ‘gentleman’ and his three bags and suit bag were all safely inside the plane.

Reunited the pair held hands as if they had just been saved from the fiery jaws of a Chinese Dragon.

To my chagrin, the pair sat in the seats right in front from of me.

I decided to find another seat. Before take-off I moved as far away as I could. I found an empty seat at the back.

Fearing the worst, I put my small computer bag under my seat, where I assumed it would be safe.

The cabin crew tried to persuade me to return to my original seat, but I would not be moved. Thankfully they let me stay where I was.

I felt like I had been in some exhilarating adventure. How did I end up here?

A week ago I left for China to attend a networking conference in Beijing, which was held by Huawei, the world’s largest telecoms equipment maker.

It was a great trip for me. I had been turned into an “instant celebrity” in Beijing, as locals snapped images of me with them.

I also enjoyed sumptuous meals, courtesy of Huawei and visited great places in the city.

I was even introduced to the joys of drinking tea by analyst Steven Ambrose of Strategy Worx and Sophia Liu of Huawei.

When we arrived in Hamad International Airport, it was my turn to “watch” the ‘gentleman’ and his colleague.

They did an amazing Houdini act and disappeared. The next time I saw the ‘gentleman’, he was already inside the aircraft headed for OR Tambo International. His companion was nowhere to be seen.

Later the same ‘gentlemen’ again tried to strike up a conversation with me.

“Are you okay?” he asked as I made my way to the bathroom. I just smiled.

I couldn’t help but wonder if the ‘gentleman’ and his suspicious hand luggage had gone past all the security scanners and check points. The questions filled my mind.

If his bags were carrying illicit goods, how was it that the ‘gentleman’ had passed through so many security gates? All hand held bags were screened by high-tech scanners for prohibited items, before being let through. Did he have connections in Beijing?

Why was, this particular ‘gentleman’ given a ride on a cart by Chinese officials inside the airport, while other passengers had to walk?

Why was, he asking me to carry his bags? What happened to his companion at Hamad International Airport in Doha?

My only conclusion was that he was probably being assisted by people higher up to smuggle whatever it was that was in his bags from China into South Africa.

Furthermore, it dawned on me that those high-tech scanners were perhaps not able to detect everything inside hand held luggage at airports.

At Beijing Capital International Airport, Ambrose’s bag was the subject of more scrutiny after scanners detected a Huawei Mi-Fi dongle inside. Strangely the same scanners didn’t pick up that I too had a Huawei Mi-Fi dongle, though smaller, in my bag.

On arrival at OR Tambo International Airport, I again noticed the ‘gentleman’ and his many bags.

There were a few policemen standing around at the exit gate. Occasionally they randomly picked one or two people whose bags they went through manually.

They didn’t frisk the ‘gentleman’.

I am not sure if I failed in my civic duty in not making my suspicions known to the relevant authorities – but there was always the chance that I may have got it all wrong.

I also have inhibitions about “getting involved”. These inhibitions have, perhaps, been heightened by the many movies I watch.

In the movies there are always dire consequences for those who rat on drug peddlers to the authorities.

Sometimes it is better to let sleeping dogs lie.

I am safely back home sipping green tea, my new found hobby.

From the safety of my house I reminisced about the other pleasant parts of my trip to China.

I remembered my conversation with Ambrose, our smart analyst, at a local pub at Dong Third Ring Road overlooking Beijing’s Lufthansa Centre Shopping Mall, China’s biggest mall. It is famous for copious consumption with a business area covering 22, 000 square metres and supplying more than 100 000 kinds of brands.

In obvious appreciation of the gigantic mall Ambrose exclaimed: “Hey comrade, capitalism has won”. I responded: “I am a capitalist at heart, but I really love how the mixed economy is working here in Beijing”.

I wish could go back to Beijing to learn more about the mixed-economy and of course it would help if someone reassured me that airport scanners actually work and that drugs and other illicit goods are not flowing freely into South Africa from abroad.

Viva Beijing, Viva China!



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