11/05/2014 09:41 am ET Updated Jan 05, 2015

Strangers With Candy: Drug Smuggling in China

Photography by Simon Bond via Getty Images

So this is the story about a true moron.

I came across a report on that almost seems too ridiculous to be true: Takuma Sakuragi, a 70-year-old Japanese politician infamous for his fiery, anti-Chinese rhetoric, is on trial for drug smuggling -- in China. No amount of diplomacy will adequately explain away the 3.3 kilograms, just a little over seven pounds, of methamphetamine in his luggage.

Now, let's forget for the moment that China was already watching the man like a hawk, if only the usual security detail foreign diplomats get. Let's forget China and Japan are currently facing off in the most serious border dispute the two nations have had in years. Let's forget for the moment that China has some of the most draconian drug penalties on the planet -- trafficking narcotics in China carries the death penalty, and the Chinese have no qualms about it. Sakuragi knows all this.

I want to land like a ton of bricks on his defense. Sakuragi is claiming that the suitcase with all the meth is not his, but belongs to "a Nigerian business associate he met while in China." That is, somebody gave it to him, and he took it, no questions asked.

Even Sakuragi's lawyer admits the scenario is a more than a little unbelievable -- when your advocate says he is "attempting the impossible," it is a really bad sign. But for the sake of this article, let us assume that Sakuragi is telling the absolute truth, that he took someone's bag for him or her. In such a case, we could be talking drugs in China. Or black market antiquities in Egypt. We could be talking about an inordinate amount of alcohol (hellooooo, Saudi Arabia). Whatever the contraband, the lesson to be learned here is that if someone asks you to take a piece of luggage for them, the rule is simple:


You would think that this commonsensical advice would be, well, common sense. We hear the warning, see it, are advised it: If someone asks you to take a parcel or piece of luggage for them through security or even after, DON'T. And report it.

The sad thing is, the reason transportation security all over the globe keeps on saying this is because people keep on not listening, often with disastrous results. For this article, I'll stick with penalties for drug smuggling, perpetrators and suckers alike. If Sakuragi was lucky enough to be persecuted in the United States, he would "only" face imprisonment, anywhere from 10 years (first office) to life (third offense). Russia throws in confiscation of property. But Sakuragi had the gross misfortune of being stupid in one of the 31 countries to apply capital punishment -- the death sentence -- for moving illegal drugs illegally. He would have been just as up the creek from Qatar to North Korea, Singapore to Zimbabwe. In some very extreme cases, the death penalty can even be applied in the USA.

Do not think this con is restricted to "those kinds of places" on "those kinds of people." A man tried to get me to take one of his bags when I was transiting through Johannesburg (I turned him down. Loudly.) Some of the smartest people in the world are victims to the con game; a good swindler will always know how to turn a strength into a weakness. They play on some the very simple lesson we get drilled into us from day one, and that is to always be nice and polite. Maybe they flatter you. Maybe they play on your sense of right and wrong. Maybe it works because the con looks so unlikely or obvious "it can't possibly be a con." Some of the best con men are in fact con women who play emotional blackmail with the "crying game" and a corresponding weepy-eyed story.

It is also true that cons go for the easiest targets. For those cons that work face-to-face, it really is a case of the path of least resistance, and there are a lot of steps you can take to avoid being a target. First of all, there are no "nice police" roaming the world's airports or docks -- you do not have to be nice 24/7 for fear of reprisal. If you do get approached, you do not have to be nice, polite and actually have the freedom to be a cast-iron bitch. After all, you are never going to meet these people ever again, and on the off chance you do, haul their @$$ to security. Airports is very aware their facilities are used as smuggling transit points, and they love a good takedown. Second, don't look "touristy" and blend in with the crowd; a rule of thumb that goes for your luggage, too. Thirdly, speaking of luggage, lock it with actual key or combination locks so no one can get into them easily, just in case a con decides to be the DIY type (and have a cohort working on the other side of your flight. Yes, they get that expansive; drugs are big business). Drug stores sell little key-locks for a few dollars.

In the case of Sakuragi, it turns out that two other people were also nabbed in the scheme, and interestingly enough, they really are from Nigeria. Maybe Sakuragi and his cohorts are drug smugglers. Maybe the Japanese politician really is as dumb as he looks. Either way, the ChinaTopix report goes on to say that China, which as taken a very sharp conservative turn under the regime of president Xi Shinping, has already executed Japanese nationals for drug smuggling, and a little research revealed that citizens of the Philippines, Australia and the UK have met similar fates, to say nothing of native-born Chinese smugglers. No Americans have yet been charged (or caught), but why take the risk? To quote the movie War Games, the only winning move is not to play.

I leave you with an age-old gay adage: Don't take candy from strangers; get real estate. In China, the latter is still a good deal.