A rapidly rising tide of small-scale drug smugglers or "mules" is threatening to swamp European efforts to cut the flow of cocaine to the continent. While the European appetite for the stimulant continues to grow, law enforcement observers believe the massive number of drug couriers heading for Europe in recent months also reflects a conscious decision by drug trafficking organizations to avoid enhanced border security measures in the United States following the attacks of September 11.
The tide of mules has begun to create political problems in at least two countries, the Netherlands and Great Britain. In the Netherlands, scandal broke out last week after customs officials at Amsterdam's Schipol airport wrote to the Amsterdam daily newspaper Het Parool to complain that they had been ordered to stop arresting small-time cocaine smugglers arriving from the Dutch Antilles and Surinam. The customs officials wrote that they had been told to stop the arrests because the courts and prisons could not cope with the influx of mules. "At a time when our society is being flooded with drugs, we are being forced on the express orders of our superiors to stick our heads in the sand," they complained.
According to a report in the Daily Telegraph (London), the non-arrest policy is believed to have been implemented with the full knowledge of Dutch Justice Minister Benk Korthals, who is now facing parliamentary calls for his resignation. Since the scandal broke, Korthals has moved aggressively on damage control, ordering a Dutch frigate to the Caribbean to hunt down cocaine smugglers and announcing the construction of 90 new jail cells at Schipol to hold the mules.
According to Dutch experts cited by the Daily Telegraph, some 20-25,000 drug mules fly into Schipol each year. Last year, some 1,200 mules arrested at Schipol were convicted of cocaine smuggling. That figure is up 60% from 2000.
In their letter, Dutch customs officers wrote that as many as 40 "bag swallowers" had been discovered on a single flight from the Caribbean. That would not be news for the British. Phil Sinkinson, Britain's deputy high commissioner in Kingston, Jamaica, reported last month that 10% of all passengers flying from Jamaica to Britain were carrying cocaine, and that could be a low figure, he told the Daily Telegraph. "There's certainly a fair number and each one can be carrying half a kilo," he said. "If you had 60 people on board a flight, that's 30 kilograms of cocaine."
Recent arrests tend to back Sinkinson's contention. On December 3, for instance, 23 passengers on a Jamaica to Heathrow flight were arrested after swallowing an estimated million dollars worth of cocaine. Sixteen more were arrested on a December 12 flight, having swallowed an estimated $250,000 worth of the drug.
According to Jamaican Police Superintendent Gladstone Wright, US anti-terrorism measures are diverting a cocaine flow that would have gone to Miami or New York. "In terms of what is happening in Britain," he told the Observer (London), "the trade has escalated sharply since September 11. The couriers who would normally be traveling to America are unable to get their drugs through because security at the borders has become so tight. Cocaine is stockpiling in Jamaica and that is no good for the dealers -- there is no viable market for the drug here," he said. "So it is all being diverted to Britain."
Gladstone also touched on the economic imperatives that drive people to take the risks involved in international drug smuggling. "Becoming a drug mule is the most readily available form of employment in the country at this moment," he explained. "It is a job that you do not have to be interviewed for or have any kind of qualifications, but you can earn more money than most Jamaicans see in a lifetime. The economy here is very bad at the moment and unemployment among women is running at 22%. These people are easy prey for the dealers," he said.
While the role of mules in overall cocaine imports to Britain is muddy -- estimates of mule deliveries from Jamaica range from 10% to 30% of the nation's estimated 25 to 40 tons of annual cocaine imports -- London police told the Guardian (London) they believed Jamaican couriers provided half the crack cocaine in the country, and that violence related to the trade was responsible for more than half of the murders in London last year.
British law enforcement concerns about the Jamaican connection now threaten to erupt into a divisive debate about racial and national profiling, as the Home Office announced this week as part of an effort to crack down on cocaine trafficking that it is considering a plan that would require all Jamaican visitors to Britain to obtain visas before entering the country. The move, which would affect 400,000 people who travel from Jamaica to Britain each year, "will spark an outcry among the black community that they are being unfairly targeted," the Guardian noted.