The Human Mule

Jody Hanson, Ph.D / Khmer Times No Comments Share:
Drug mules and their stashes.

PHNOM PENH, (Khmer Times) – A mule – a sterile beast of burden which is a cross between a male donkey and a female horse – is an apt term for drug carriers. 
 
 
As for drug mules in Cambodia, aout 70 percent of the mules arrestsed  are made at the airport. The most popular airlines are Eva, Dragon Air and, surprisingly, Silk Air as the couriers traveling via Singapore are normally transit passengers.
 
 
Since they are arriving in Cambodia, they expect the customs officers to be lax. Singapore carries the death penalty for drugs and, as such, has stricter checks, but they have already transited through there. “The couriers – or drug mules as they are better known – are not on guard when they come via Singapore,” said a high-ranking former anti-drug unit official at the Ministry of the Interior.
 
 
The official who agreed to talk with the Khmer Times on conditions of remaining anonymous said there is an official anti-drug program in place. “Cambodia is making a strong international statement that drug trafficking will not be tolerated in the Kingdom. The sentences are harsh to set an example. By the time the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) is in place in 2015, there will be a no-drugs tolerance policy in place.”
 
 
“It is more difficult to control drugs crossing the land borders. Sometimes the bag goes on the bus and the mule takes a taxi. But we are getting more stringent about it. Another way we apprehend people is when a family member or jealous neighbor reports the person as a suspect. Then we set up a surveillance operation to monitor the situation.”
 
 
The anti-drug squad has good connections with Vietnam and the two countries exchange surveillance information. “Cambodia is a transit country and most of the drugs are for export, rather than local consumption. It doesn’t matter if you are trafficking from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap or to Sydney, the penalties are the same,” he said.
 
 
He went on to explain, “The sentence is partly determined by the percentage of how pure the drug is. For example, if a mule is carrying heroin or crystal meth that is 100 percent pure, the sentence will be more stringent than trafficking drugs which are 50 percentpure, because they have been mixed with other substances. Anyone who sets up a laboratory with equipment to manufacture drugs automatically gets life in jail.”
 
 
Unlike America where they are three males for every female, there are more women couriers in Cambodia. The nationalities of the mules vary: Thai, Vietnamese, Australians, Cambodians who live overseas and Europeans.
 
 
He added that despite the dubious methods the couriers use, they eventually get caught, because of tip-offs, as well as surveillance work which may take over a year.
 
 
If the anti-drug police are alerted, the mule is not allowed to leave the country, even though it might mean catching someone higher up at the other end. “Once arrested, the person has the right to appeal to the lower court within 30 days,” he said. “Unless there is overwhelming evidence to the contrary, however, it is likely that the verdict will be upheld.”
 
 
The message that the anti-drug unit is sending is very clear: mules, couriers and dealers beware.
 
 
What is the hierarchy? 
 
 
In the murky world of narcotics, mules – people who knowing or unknowingly transport drugs – are the lowest link in the feeding chain. And there are a lot of levels between the mules and the top people, which makes it difficult to arrest those who really control the shadowy drug operations. 
 
 
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes (UNODC) estimates the profit margin for illegal drugs ranges from 300 to 2,000 percent. What other businesses offer that sort of return? 
 
 
The majority of illegal drugs are sent by legitimate postal services or through shipping and freight companies. But that can be time consuming. And whoever picks up the delivery gets arrested because it is easier to track.
 
 
Why do people become couriers? 
 
 
Couriers do it for the money. Fast, easy, cash with relatively little chance of getting caught. While mules might not make an income comparable with a corporate CEO salary and benefits, $10K or $15 K is a fortune to an unemployed grocery clerk.  
 
 
Statistics about how many drug mules get arrested are impossible to obtain, because none of the official agencies know how many there actually are. The numbers are, at best, speculative.
 
 
How are the drugs transported?
 
 
Couriers are innovative when it comes to personal concealment. Bra padding can be replaced; high heel shoes are a good injection spot; the morbidly obese can hide packages under fat rolls and that won’t even be found during a pat search.
 
 
Then there are the swallowers who stuff the drugs into balloons or condoms and coat them in wax. Then they hope they don’t explode in the digestive track as death is immediate. At the other end, the swallowers take laxatives and expel the pellets. This method is popular as it evades sniffer dogs, frisks and property searches. At the JFK airport they even have a special drug toilet that sanitizes the pellets before they are taken out of the bowl.  
 
 
Some mules opt for hidden luggage compartments, baby bottles or cosmetic containers. Still others sew the packages under the skins of animals. Or fill their car tires and drive across the border. There is no lack of innovative approaches.
 
 
What are the most popular drugs?
 
 
In alphabetical order they are cannabis, cocaine, heroin and psychotropic substances. The UNODC estimates that the global yearly consumption of heroin is 30,8443 kg (340 tons). 
 
 
What do the police at customs look for?
 
 
There are some dead-give away signs for drug mules. The first is sweating, the second is being exceedingly nervous and the third is a pulsating carotidal artery. These signs are all visible at ten paces. And they are also a logical response to someone who knows s/he might be facing 20 plus years in jail if caught. 
 
 
Besides the physical red-lights, there are the psychological give-aways. Vague answers about the itinerary, posing as a tourist without knowing anything about any of the attractions, visiting various countries for short stays and not eating or drinking anything on the flight – remember those pellets.  
 
 
Would you deliver these toys to my grandkids?
 
 
But what about the people who innocently transport items they think are legitimate? Some one finds out you are going to London and that you have room in your suitcase. Is it polite to decline a simple request to take gifts? Yes. Anyone who agrees to carry anything across a border is running a risk. 
 
 
At some airports they ask “Did you pack this bag yourself” and “Are you carrying anything for anyone else.” At others they don’t.
 
 
When it comes to being caught with drugs – knowingly or unknowingly – the assumption is that you are guilty. Trying to prove you are innocent because you didn’t know the teddy-bear was filled with cocaine is difficult – if not impossible – to prove.
 
 
Human mules – like the animal version – are subject to abuse and stiff penalties. Is the risk worth it?
 

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