I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
The days when the old suitcase-with-the-false-bottom ruse could get a box of smokes, a bottle of absinthe, or a stack of saucy pictures past the eagle-eye of the customs officer are long past. Smugglers today are playing a bigger game for much bigger stakes.
Drug traffickers use boats, planes, trucks, and cars to shift the bulk of their merchandise, but they also use individual carriers. These people are called “mules,” and it’s a risky occupation.
It didn’t work out well for Janice Bronwyn Linden. In November 2008, she was caught entering China with three kilos of methamphetamine in her luggage; she claimed the drug had been planted in her suitcase.
In mid-December 2011, the 38-year-old South African woman was executed by lethal injection.
Unknowing Drug Carriers
It’s true some drug mules do not know they are carrying contraband; Mexican gangs have taped drug packages to the underside of American cars on their side of the border for recovery later by colleagues in the U.S.
Even dogs have been used as carriers. In 2006, Colombian drug smugglers surgically inserted drugs into puppies and tried to pass them off as show dogs heading for a competition. Three of the six pooches died from infected incisions, the others were rescued and lived happily, it was said, in Colombia.
Children too get dragged into the business, possibly against their wishes. In May 2008, a Mexican woman was arrested in England; she had strapped about 10 kilos of drugs to the legs of two kids; she got a nine-year prison sentence.
Some people are duped into carrying a package home at the end of their vacation: “it’s a birthday present for my mother who lives in Calgary.” Very likely it’s something like a hollow ornament filled with drugs and the carrier has an extremely unpleasant end to her or his holiday.
Professional Drug Mules
Others are well aware of what they are doing and take the chance they’ll get through and hit a big pay off. This may have been in the mind of Nobanda Nolubabalo, although the hoped-for money offered doesn’t seem to have been that good.
The 23-year-old woman, also from South Africa, was arrested in Thailand on December 13, 2011 after a flight from Brazil. Hidden within her luxuriant dreadlocks officials found 1.5 kilos of cocaine.
The South African Broadcasting Corporation reports that, “Police say the suspect admitted smuggling the drugs with a street value of R1.2 million (about $150,000). She told police that she had been hired to deliver it to a customer at a hotel in Bangkok for R16,000 (almost $2,000).”
She is enduring a 15-year stay in Thailand’s notoriously violent and squalid prisons.
Other professionals go in for what’s called “body stuffing” or “body packing.” This involves putting drugs into a flexible container, usually a condom, and swallowing it. On arrival, the carrier chugs down a hefty dose of laxative and passes the packages in what is said to be a painful process.
The downside of this smuggling method is that sometimes the condoms break as they go through the digestive system. As the Discovery Channel reports, “In 2007, a 23-year-old British woman suffered a massive heart attack on a transatlantic flight after having swallowed 60 packets of cocaine. She was dead by the time the plane made an emergency landing.”
Prince Nnaedozie Umegbolu from Nigeria (yes, an actual Nigerian prince) had an unfortunate gastric accident at La Guardia Airport, New York, in April 2010.
The 12-year-old boy, a Nigerian-American citizen who had arrived from Abuja, complained of a stomach ache. The cause of the ailment was soon revealed when he began passing little packages. Upon examination it was found the small bags contained heroin and there were 87 of them.
Young Mr. Umegbolu explained he was forced to swallow the contraband at knife point. He got off lightly with a two-year probation sentence.
Inventive Smuggling Schemes
Only a complete novice would try to smuggle drugs hidden in a pre-filled diaper. The authorities got onto that one decades ago. However, the traffickers never cease to come up with new strategies.
Necessity being the mother of invention came into play when a Chilean man broke his leg. As CNN reported in March 2009: “Spanish police arrested a man arriving at Barcelona’s airport from Chile after determining that the cast on his fractured left leg was made of cocaine …”
And, while the “medical” file is open, how about breast implants filled with drugs? In February 2016 a Colombian woman turned up in Berlin with 2.2 pounds of cocaine stuffed into a recent augmentation.
Hiding narcotics in produce is another favourite method of traffickers.
Colombia is a major producer of bananas and cocaine, so a marriage of the two industries was a natural. A shipment of the fruit was intercepted in Seville, Spain in September 2016. It was found to contain 2,000 pounds of cocaine. Sometimes, the drugs are concealed in fake bananas made of plastic.
It’s a constant game of cat and mouse. As soon as the authorities close down one trafficking scheme another is invented. It's all driven, of course, by consumer demand.
- According to the Global Financial Integrity organization, the annual value of the illicit drug trade is between $426 billion and $652 billion. That’s equivalent, at the low end, to the Gross Domestic Product of Thailand and, at the high end, to that of Switzerland.
- The National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that an estimated 20 million Americans older than 12, that’s eight percent of the population, uses an illegal drug in each 30-day period.
- Ike Atkinson was a U.S. Army Master Sergeant who organized the shipment of heroin from South East Asia during the Vietnam War. The narcotics were shipped in coffins, body bags, and even the body cavities of dead servicemen being shipped back to America. Atkinson was buying the heroin for $4,000 a kilo and his associates were selling it for $25,000 a quarter kilo. He was caught and jailed but, allegedly, continued to run his operation from inside prison.
- “Drug Mules.” Investigation Discovery. Undated.
- “South African Janice Linden Executed in China.” BBC News, December 12, 2011.
- “Another South African Nabbed for Drug Smuggling.” SABC, December 13, 2011.
- “Teen Drug Mule Sentenced to Probation.” Courtney Dentch, New York Times Ledger, October 10, 2011.
- “Smuggler with Broken Leg Wears Cocaine Cast.” Al Goodman, CNN, March 6, 2009.
- “Fake Vegetables, Frozen Sharks, and an Xbox — Here Are Some of Drugs Smugglers’ most Bizarre Methods.” Christopher Woody, Business Insider, April 2, 2017.
© 2018 Rupert Taylor
Kari Poulsen from Ohio on January 09, 2018:
The picture of the money astounds me. I always wondered what 207 million dollars would look like, lol.
Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on January 07, 2018:
It's just crazy what people do now to smuggle drugs. I've just finished reading a book about Pablo Escobar. I couldn't believe the money he made from drugs. Astonishing!