Tue, Nov 13, 2007 - Page 9 News List

UK drug trail lures mules

Cartels get drugs from Colombia to Europe by recruiting poor teenagers to do the dirty work


The condoms are smeared in margarine or local vegetable oil "to help them slip down," said Kawko, holding out the white grains of pure cocaine in his scarred palm. Behind him, on the palm-tree fringed beach of Prampram village, dozens of colorfully painted longboats make land, the bulky wooden vessels heaved and roped out of the roaring Atlantic by slender teenage boys.

"There are many other couriers here in Ghana; some have made a dozen journeys to London and Amsterdam. You can see the benefit it has brought to their families, even here in our village. Their mothers have stopped working; some have motorbikes and have bought fishing boats. Some have also died," Kawko said.

"A school friend of mine swallowed over 50 condoms and died within an hour. He dipped the condoms in honey and they ruptured. He was foolish; the condoms were local, not imported," Kawko said.

Kawko gestures to where his youngest son is playing in the sea with a yellow plastic oil drum.

"I wouldn't want this life for him," he said.

Over the past few years, a concerted shift in trafficking routes has transformed West African countries like Ghana, Senegal and Guinea-Bissau into volatile hubs for cocaine smuggled from South America to a booming European market. Using sophisticated transportation networks and the latest communication technology to elude woefully inept coastguards, Colombian traffickers are establishing transit areas along the Gulf of Guinea that can only worsen lawlessness in countries already overwhelmed by crime, poverty and instability.

For locals the route opens up a risky but tempting way out of poverty. A single flight to Amsterdam from Ghana, via Morocco, earlier this year carried 32 West Africans, all of whom had swallowed cocaine packets or concealed them in their luggage. Impatient with the increasing arrest rates of mules, the South American cartels have recruited London-based Nigerians and Ghanaians to scour the city for gullible teenage drug couriers.

Last week two teenagers were seized at Accra airport, en route for London Gatwick. The 16 and 19-year-olds, both Lithuanian boys living in south London, were arrested under the British-led Operation Westbridge, a joint project by HM Revenue & Customs and the Ghanaian authorities to catch drug smugglers using Accra as a gateway to the UK. The pair were allegedly caught with nearly 4kg of cocaine ingested in around 16 condoms.

It came after July's seizure of 16-year-old London schoolgirls Yasemin Vatansever and Yutunde Diya, who were stopped leaving the country allegedly carrying ?300,000 (US$625,160) of cocaine hidden in laptop bags. A narcotics officer who interrogated the girls claimed the teenagers knew exactly what they were coming to do in Ghana. They were, he claimed, "classic mules" recruited in London to come to Ghana and pick up the bags for a fee of ?3,000. Up to 60 mules a week are estimated to arrive in Britain from the region.

The rain falls heavily on the bumpy road to Kumasi, churning it to red slushy mud. Here, 50km from the Ghanaian capital, Accra, is Nswana Prison. For its two recent occupants, Vatansever and Diya, the international fight against South American drug cartels is of little concern. The girls, who had told their parents they were going on a school trip to France before flying to Ghana, fit the classic drug mule profile -- young, poor and gullible. They have spent most of their time in isolation. In the past two weeks Vatansever is believed to have contracted malaria.

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