Cocaine to Go…Hold the Mayo

Jan 21, 2014 at 8:50 AM ET

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.

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.

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.