The drug mules carrying Europe’s cocaine in their guts

Cayenne (AFP) – More than a sixth of the cocaine consumed in France is smuggled in the corpses of drug traffickers from the impoverished South American region of Guyana.

Women and even children, some of whom are pregnant, are among those risking their lives for several thousand euros (dollars) by swallowing tightly-wrapped packets of medicine or hiding them in their body cavities.

“I had no choice. I needed money,” said Tonio, 27, who flew to Paris with 800 grams of “cola” in his stomach. hidden in your shoes.

After passing through the airport, he was caught at a train station and went to jail.

Authorities estimate that thirty drug mules like him board every flight from Cayenne, the capital of Guyana, to France. Smugglers, who expect to make 1,000 percent profit from drugs, are ruining flights.

A kilogram (2.2 pounds) of cocaine purchased for 4,500 euros ($4,835) in French Guiana or 3,500 euros in neighboring Suriname can be sold to dealers in France for 35,000 euros, which they can then cut and sell to their customers three times over. he is.

Mules receive between 3,000 and 10,000 euros per trip, depending on how much they carry.

“It’s not complicated, you just need to have the right people,” Tonio said.

'I had no choice': Drug mule Tonio jailed for smuggling cocaine to Paris
‘I had no choice’: Drug mule Tonio jailed for smuggling cocaine to Paris © jody amiet / AFP

And there is no shortage of candidates.

Despite being home to Europe’s Spaceport, Guyana is plagued by extreme poverty and unemployment, a legacy of its history as a slave society and prison colony – just off the coast of the infamous Devil’s Island.

Sharing a long forest border where police are nearly impossible, Suriname is even poorer with drug mules, many of which are illegal immigrants from the former Dutch colony.

‘Narco district’

Geography and poverty have made French Guiana “a drug zone and one of the main centers” of the cocaine trade, officials told AFP.

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Within striking distance of Colombian coca fields, it is estimated that between a fifth and a sixth of the cocaine consumed in France passes through this sparsely populated region of mostly Amazonian forest, sandwiched between Brazil and Suriname.

The center of mule operations is the town of Saint-Laurent on the wide, brown Maroni River, which forms a border with Suriname more than 500 kilometers (300 miles).

Unemployed or out of school – the education system is unable to keep up with the town’s growing Surinamese immigrant population – many of its 50,000 residents are tempted by the easy money available from cocaine smuggling.

Their perilous journeys to mainland France often begin in the small town of Albina on the river’s Surinamese bank, just across from Saint-Laurent du Maroni.

That’s where most of the mules are loaded with cocaine.

Cocaine in a package found at Cayenne airport in French Guiana
Cocaine in a package found at Cayenne airport in French Guiana © jody amiet / AFP

Hundreds of people cross the river in bunker canoes every day from the French side to shop in Albina, where food and oil are cheaper.

Mules like Julia and Lydia return among the shoppers.

“We knew the risks,” said Julia, a mother of two from Suriname, who spent two years in French prisons after her capture.

“This is not a pleasure cruise…but what can you do if you have no other choice?” He told AFP.

swallowing practice

“You go to jail and then (traders) leave you alone. I paid my debt.”

Both he and his friend Lydia (both names changed at their request) are descendants of African slaves brought to Suriname by the Dutch.

“I had an empty flat and I wanted to furnish it,” Lydia said in the local dialect, Taki-taki, or Sranan, a mix of French, English, and Dutch. “The smugglers promised me 15,000 euros if I bought more than 3.5 kilos.”

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Lydia was arrested while carrying 4.5 kilos of cocaine at the airport.

Some mules practice for the journey by swallowing small sausages, while others relax packets of cocaine with oil, soft drinks or okra. They’ve all stuffed themselves with anti-diarrhea drugs.

After devouring their caches, most take the three-hour trip to the airport in Cayenne by minibuses crossing the route.

There is only one road connecting the cities, and the police often wait for them halfway through the stifling heat of Iracoubo.

“After stopping people on the road twice in September, we had several seizures and gained four kilos,” he told AFP.

Almost half of these charges had been swallowed.

Mules travel mostly in the midday heat a few hours before check-in for Air France and Air Caraibes flights to mainland France.

Police searching for drug mules at checkpoint in Iracoubo, French Guiana
Police searching for drug mules at checkpoint in Iracoubo, French Guiana © jody amiet / AFP

Lieutenant Colonel Arnaud Amestoy, the region’s gendarmerie commander, said, “After stopping three people in Iracoubo… I can’t detain any more.” “We need a lot more police to stop the flow.”

Scanners and sniffing dogs

But checkpoints are the first obstacle the mules have to cross. Police and customs officers are sometimes waiting at the airport where every passenger on a flight is searched.

In 2021, they seized 512 mules and seized 1.26 tons of cocaine.

Usually, officers only have a few minutes to select suspects. A police dog caught the scent of two teenagers during AFP’s day with border force at the airport.

They were pulled over by officers and one of them tested positive for cocaine in his urine. He was arrested and taken to a secure unit of the Cayenne hospital for x-rays.

A sniffer dog checks luggage at Cayenne airport, where 30 passengers on each flight to Paris are most likely to be drug mules.
A sniffer dog checks luggage at Cayenne airport, where 30 passengers on each flight to Paris are most likely to be drug mules. © jody amiet / AFP

If anything comes up, “we’ll start the ‘pellet protocol,'” said Karim Hamiche, the doctor in charge of the private safe ward.

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“The person will stay until the pellets are discarded – 24 to 48 hours.”

Cocaine packets are more robust than before, but there is still danger.

“In April, a 37-year-old man died in hospital in Cayenne after falling on the street,” Hamiche said.

“The autopsy found over a kilo of cocaine in his body.”

High tension and tears

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, 305 passengers on Air Caraibes’ daily flight from Cayenne disembark at Orly, Paris’ second airport.

A hesitant teenager in a black jacket caught the attention of customs officials.

He is from Saint-Laurent du Maroni and has just turned 18.

An X-ray of his trunk is taken after he goes to the bathroom. Tension rises, and after a few minutes the suspect crackles up and pulls more than a pound of cocaine “nuts” from his hood.

Border police looking for a passenger boarding a flight from Cayenne, French Guiana
Border police looking for a passenger boarding a flight from Cayenne, French Guiana © jody amiet / AFP

The teen, bursting into tears, admits to swallowing packets of cocaine and hiding in the rectum of others.

First he said he was going to sell it, then he finally admitted that someone was waiting for the cocaine at the airport. He was promised 8,000 euros for the trip.

Before Cayenne-Orly flights became their main route, traffickers sent mules mostly from Suriname via Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport. But smuggling slowed as each passenger was passed through special scanners.

“As soon as we have a scanner here (at Cayenne airport), we will quickly fix the problem. In three or four months it will be a deterrent,” an official source told AFP.

France’s interior minister has already signaled that a machine will be installed in Cayenne to screen everyone boarding a plane.

But many, like Cayenne lawyer Saphia Benhamida, who represents some of the mules, believe it’s better to get to the root of the problem.

Lawyer Saphia Benhamida: As long as people stay poor, you will always have mules
Lawyer Saphia Benhamida: As long as people stay poor, you will always have mules © jody amiet / AFP

“There will always be poor people here, so you’ll always have mules. You can’t control everyone at the airport. We’re not going to change things by just getting more police,” he said.

“If only Saint-Laurent du Maroni had schools, work, and convenient transportation,” insisted Benhamida.

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