Fri, May 09, 2003 - Page 6 News List

Drug mules lured by pipe dream

JAMAICA DIRECT Authorities are cracking down on cocaine smuggling but poor women will keep trying as long as they can earn ?4,000 more than a year's wages

AP , KINGSTON, JAMAICA

Claudine Ward remembers buckling her seat belt and closing her eyes. She prayed the 47 packets of cocaine in her stomach wouldn't make her vomit during the nine-hour flight to London.

They had told her it would be easy: deliver the drugs, lay low for a week, come home. She would collect ?4,000 (US$6,200), more than most Jamaicans earn in a year and enough to move out of the cramped concrete house she and her four children shared with her mother in rural Jamaica.

"My heart was pounding," she said. "I just wanted to reach England."

It's a dangerous trip attempted by many poor Jamaican women who often find -- instead of fortune -- only more hardship, including prison time and separation from their children. Some die.

When Ward reached London's Heathrow Airport, customs agents seized her bag and pulled her aside for questioning. She lied, but an analysis of her urine didn't back up her story.

She was kept 48 hours in detention until the 240 grams of cocaine passed through her body -- and then spent the next 1 1/2 years in prison.

"I was thinking, `What have I gotten myself into?' But it's just me and my kids, and I was desperate," the 31-year-old single mother said in Jamaica after her release.

What she did has become common on flights leaving places such as Colombia and Caribbean islands from Curacao to Trinidad.

In Jamaica, the lure for women to become drug mules grew greater with a new blow to the perennially struggling economy from the Sept. 11 terror attacks in the US. The resulting climate of fear cut into tourism -- one of the island's main industries, along with bauxite mining -- with the number of visitors down 10 percent last year.

Swallowers

In that year, police said they arrested 351 people for swallowing cocaine at Jamaica's two main airports, up from 47 in 2001.

About 9 percent of all female inmates in British prisons are Jamaicans convicted of drug smuggling, British officials say.

And they estimate at least one in 10 Jamaican passengers on London-bound flights are "drug mules," prompting one British newspaper to dub Air Jamaica, the national carrier, "Cocaine Air."

Just five couriers per flight carrying 1kg of cocaine each can smuggle about 30 tonnes of cocaine every year, authorities say.

The mules are backed by sophisticated smugglers who "know how to market it, how to package it, how to ship it and how to conceal it," said Phil Sinkinson, Britain's deputy high commissioner in Jamaica.

Those who become drug mules rarely understand the risks.

Dangerous game

In October 2001, a 30-year-old Jamaican woman died on a flight to London after one of 55 pellets she swallowed ruptured, triggering a massive overdose.

On arrival, the women make easy targets for customs agents looking for irregularities: small amounts of luggage and cash, and improper attire for the cold weather.

Jamaican officials are advertising warnings on radio and television that swallowing drugs can bring up to 10 years in prison -- and maybe death. A black poster at Kingston's airport is blunt: "Drug mules beware: It's a plane ticket to hell."

Officials estimate more than 100 tons of cocaine pass through the Caribbean island each year, most destined for the United States.

US Customs agents at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport alone seized 373kg of cocaine from passengers coming from Jamaica last year.

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