'Mules' risk lives, freedom smuggling Peru cocaine
Texas native Adyadet Cabret, suitcase in hand at Lima's airport, was close to clinching the $10,000 payment for smuggling 11 pounds (5 kg) of cocaine in a corset pressing tightly into her stomach.
Then the Peruvian police woman tapped her on the shoulder.
"I was shaking; my heart was beating fast. I turned around and thought, 'Oh my God,"' said Cabret, 28, clasping her bright auburn hair as she sat on a wooden bench in the crowded prison that has been her home for nearly three years.
Around her, the prison yard buzzed on visitors' day with mothers, toddlers in diapers and friends who braved hot sun to see inmates. Some inmates are foreigners like Cabret including Dutch, Spanish and German nationals and many more are Peruvians who took the gamble as human drug "mules" and failed.
A growing tide of mules, who stash, tape to their bodies and even swallow lucrative drugs cargo bound for Europe and the United States, are a problem for this poor nation that boasts the unenviable title of the world's No. 2 producer of cocaine.
In 2002, Peru snared 239 mules, double the 120 captures in 2001. A push to capture drug mules is just part of President Alejandro Toledo government's plan to quash illegal drugs, on the rise in Peru as neighbor Colombia, the world's biggest cocaine producer, puts the squeeze on its drug runners.
Most cocaine, made from the traditional Andean coca leaf, is snuck out of Peru by truck, in light aircraft, in giant boat shipments and other methods. But officials are worried about a spike in mules who take matters into their own hands.
'A SURE THING'
In April 2000, Cabret, a mother of three desperate for cash, traveled from her home in Waco, Texas, to South America to pick up a drugs shipment and carry it to Switzerland.
Her first trip outside the United States, it was a sure thing, her contacts said.
Three strangers met her in Quito, Ecuador, dressed her in a corset and tight shorts -- both of which, she was told, had cocaine sewn inside -- and sent her on a Lima-bound bus to catch a KLM flight to Europe. There, she would get $10,000.
In Lima's airport, Cabret was nervous and disoriented, sweating in a jacket buttoned up to her neck, when she was pulled aside by police. They strip-searched her, cut the cocaine out of the corset and shorts, and tossed it on a table in front of her.
"At that moment, I didn't care about drugs, about the money. I just wanted to go home," she said. She was sentenced to six years and eight months in jail, but will likely not serve the entire time.
"Drug runners round up people ... and offer them a sum of money that for them is extraordinary -- $4,000, $5,000 -- to carry a drug load," Marco Draganac, head of special operations for customs, told Reuters in a recent interview.
"That will keep them afloat for some time if they take the risk," he said. Most of Peru's mules are headed for Holland, he said, followed by Spain, the United States, and Russia.
Some 50 customs agents are specially trained to spot suspicious travelers -- people with humble clothes and expensive looking luggage, for example, or people bundled up in winter wear for a trip to Miami and passengers with suitcases or backpacks that look like they might have been tampered with.
Besides the "mummies" who duct-tape drugs around their thighs, shins, or stomach, some mules carry cocaine in false-bottom suitcases, wine bottles, fake shampoo bottles or jars of jam.
In one complex process, cocaine is liquefied and then applied to clothes -- to be worn or packed -- as a "starch" which will later be melted off. Customs agents are also on the lookout for a new scheme that entails solidifying cocaine into flat discs identical to music CDs.
"Human ingenuity in efforts to outwit authorities is limitless," said Gen. Edy Tomasto, head of Peru's anti-drugs police, adding the drug mules often work in small groups -- of which one is caught and others slip by -- to mislead agents.
Agents use high-tech methods to find drugs like X-rays and special wands that detect even minute traces, but they also rely on eyeballing. "We play a cat-and-mouse game," Draganac said. "We're like a soccer goalie just waiting for the penalty kick to see who is better -- (the mule) or us."
Some hardy souls swallow up to 2 pounds (0.90 kg) of drug "capsules" that consist of cocaine deposited in tied-off condoms or fingers from surgical gloves. They are trained to stomach the drugs by swallowing whole grapes and ice cubes.
While the drugs are in their system, those mules take special drugs to stop regular digestive functions such as production of stomach acids that erode plastic, but it is still a dangerous game.
"If one of those bursts, they die immediately," Draganac said. He said several mules have perished, generally from convulsions as a massive amount of cocaine enters their system, in police hands in Peru or on international flights. Just drinking a soda, for example, can trigger those stomach acids.
But it is hard to tell whether Peru is getting better at capturing mules or whether there are simply more to capture.
Fighting drugs is a tough task in Peru, where more than half of people scrape by on $1.25 or less a day and officials struggle for basics like electricity, sewage, and schoolbooks.
"We don't have enough money," Draganac said.
BEHIND-BARS BEAUTY QUEEN
Twenty-one-year old Norlin Mota from Venezuela worked in Caracas promoting cell phone sales until she came to Peru on a mission to smuggle 5.5 pounds (2.5 kg) of cocaine in a suitcase.
The police "grabbed me," she says glumly. "I got cold feet but (the drug traffickers) told me it was my life or the trip."
Mota, wearing a bright blue tank top, her dark hair pulled back loosely, tells with an ironic smile of her election last year as queen of the prison's beauty contest. She won a stereo and beauty treatments like facials.
"I just want to get out ... and start over," she says.
U.S. citizen Cabret's children, meanwhile, are now in foster care and her family has sent word she needs to get herself out of the mess. Looking at the table in front of her through thick glasses, she says she feels used.
"I needed the money and I did it for my kids," she said. "It was my first time and I got caught."