CRIME

Cocaine to Go…Hold the Mayo

Inside Colombia's fight against drug mules
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A kilo of pure cocaine, grown and sold inside Colombia, will fetch around $1,500. That same kilo, once it hits the streets of America or Europe, cut up and sold in small amounts, can be worth as much as $120,000. So the incentive to export is strong. The problem for traffickers is getting the cocaine from point A to point B when both point A and B are crawling with trained drug enforcement agents. As police methods become more sophisticated, traffickers have had to get creative. Cocaine smuggling is always evolving; if they get busted doing one thing on Monday, their methods have changed by Tuesday. Authorities worldwide report that smugglers’ transport methods run the gamut, from catapults to submarines to ultra-light aircraft.

But there is one sturdy vessel has stood the test of time: the human. The drug mule is still the go-to method for many of Columbia’s cocaine traffickers. But this, too, has its limits. There are only so many places you can hide a kilo of cocaine on a person’s body or inside their luggage. Mules have tried hiding the cocaine inside candles, toys and musical instruments. Then there are places inside the human body itself, what is known as “internal smuggling.”

Breast implants have been used. Some “larger” mules have hidden cocaine in their rolls of fat. In one well-publicized method, a drug mule swallows large capsules or condoms full of cocaine and “retrieves” the items later. This practice gained attention when a mule died mid-flight. One of the capsules broke in his stomach, and a massive amount of cocaine was released into his body, killing him almost instantly.

HOW WE KNOW

We reviewed statistical databases and annual reports maintained by the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC), among other sources, for insight on global and country-specific cocaine production and consumption trends, smuggling methods and interdiction efforts. For more information, navigate to the UNODC's homepage or their Colombia field office's website.

With risks ranging from hard time in a Colombian prison to death by overdose, you wonder why anyone would want this job. Consider the want ad: a seven-figure salary, a couple days of work—and, oh, yeah, just don’t get caught. But in a depressed global economy, recruitment is not a problem.

With so many methods of evasion and new ones springing up all the time, police have to rely on profiling methods to find the mules. But this, too, is evolving. Poor Colombians traveling to Europe from the U.S. were once prime suspects.

A Spoonful of Soup Helps the Cocaine Go Down

The amount of cocaine that an individual can internally smuggle is relatively small compared with the quantities that can be moved via other, external modes of transportation. According to some estimates, most drug mules can carry up to 1 kilogram of cocaine inside their bodies, though officials concede that a very large person could potentially fit an additional kilo. In order to reach this high-water mark, mules are often given soups laced with narcotics or oral anesthesia prior to ingestion to numb their throats. This helps minimize discomfort and maximize the number of cocaine-filled condoms the mule can swallow. 

Still, 1 to 2 kilograms of cocaine is a far cry from the 700 kilos that Go Fast boats can transport, not to mention the 10-ton capacity of the narco-submarines used by some traffickers. 

Now, with a growing number of foreign mules getting caught, almost everybody is a suspect. Vocativ spent a day at Bogota’s Eldorado airport to watch Colombian authorities at work, trying to catch the mules. Beyond the X-ray machines and drug-sniffing dogs, they rely on good, old-fashioned police work. They look for the one thing that is out of place: a well-dressed businessman with scuffed up shoes or a $10 briefcase, a woman pushing a stroller with no child in sight, or an 18-year-old American flying to Spain, carrying enough ketchup and mayonnaise to open a fast-food restaurant.

A kilo of pure cocaine, grown and sold inside Colombia, will fetch around $1,500. That same kilo, once it hits the streets of America or Europe, cut up and sold in small amounts, can be worth as much as $120,000. So the incentive to export is strong. The problem for traffickers is getting the cocaine from point A to point B when both point A and B are crawling with trained drug enforcement agents. As police methods become more sophisticated, traffickers have had to get creative. Cocaine smuggling is always evolving; if they get busted doing one thing on Monday, their methods have changed by Tuesday. Authorities worldwide report that smugglers’ transport methods run the gamut, from catapults to submarines to ultra-light aircraft.

But there is one sturdy vessel has stood the test of time: the human. The drug mule is still the go-to method for many of Columbia’s cocaine traffickers. But this, too, has its limits. There are only so many places you can hide a kilo of cocaine on a person’s body or inside their luggage. Mules have tried hiding the cocaine inside candles, toys and musical instruments. Then there are places inside the human body itself, what is known as “internal smuggling.”

Breast implants have been used. Some “larger” mules have hidden cocaine in their rolls of fat. In one well-publicized method, a drug mule swallows large capsules or condoms full of cocaine and “retrieves” the items later. This practice gained attention when a mule died mid-flight. One of the capsules broke in his stomach, and a massive amount of cocaine was released into his body, killing him almost instantly.

HOW WE KNOW

We reviewed statistical databases and annual reports maintained by the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC), among other sources, for insight on global and country-specific cocaine production and consumption trends, smuggling methods and interdiction efforts. For more information, navigate to the UNODC's homepage or their Colombia field office's website.

With risks ranging from hard time in a Colombian prison to death by overdose, you wonder why anyone would want this job. Consider the want ad: a seven-figure salary, a couple days of work—and, oh, yeah, just don’t get caught. But in a depressed global economy, recruitment is not a problem.

With so many methods of evasion and new ones springing up all the time, police have to rely on profiling methods to find the mules. But this, too, is evolving. Poor Colombians traveling to Europe from the U.S. were once prime suspects.

A Spoonful of Soup Helps the Cocaine Go Down

The amount of cocaine that an individual can internally smuggle is relatively small compared with the quantities that can be moved via other, external modes of transportation. According to some estimates, most drug mules can carry up to 1 kilogram of cocaine inside their bodies, though officials concede that a very large person could potentially fit an additional kilo. In order to reach this high-water mark, mules are often given soups laced with narcotics or oral anesthesia prior to ingestion to numb their throats. This helps minimize discomfort and maximize the number of cocaine-filled condoms the mule can swallow. 

Still, 1 to 2 kilograms of cocaine is a far cry from the 700 kilos that Go Fast boats can transport, not to mention the 10-ton capacity of the narco-submarines used by some traffickers. 

Now, with a growing number of foreign mules getting caught, almost everybody is a suspect. Vocativ spent a day at Bogota’s Eldorado airport to watch Colombian authorities at work, trying to catch the mules. Beyond the X-ray machines and drug-sniffing dogs, they rely on good, old-fashioned police work. They look for the one thing that is out of place: a well-dressed businessman with scuffed up shoes or a $10 briefcase, a woman pushing a stroller with no child in sight, or an 18-year-old American flying to Spain, carrying enough ketchup and mayonnaise to open a fast-food restaurant.

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