Nowhere to Run: Economic Crisis and the Tragedy of Drug Mules

by Sergio Casesmeiro

A scared, nervous Spaniard stands in front of a camera at the police station of Jorge Chávez International Airport in Lima, Peru. The police officer asks a few questions; name, age, are these your bags? Do you know what is in them? The ages vary: 24, 56, 41, but two answers usually remain the same: Country of origin? Spain, Content of your bag? Cocaine. Welcome to Desolation Boulevard, a two way street where the losers of the current global crises and its drug laws travel in search of some “easy” money that will allow them to pay their debts.

Data from the Spanish Foreign Ministry reveals that more than 2,000 Spaniards are incarcerated abroad for their role as drug mules. The numbers have increased dramatically due to the savage economic crisis that has left more than five million unemployed – approximately 25% of the population. Construction workers, waiters, mechanics, and housewives risk a lengthy stay in an overcrowded South American jail for more or less €7,000.  In 2012, sixty two Spanish drug mules were arrested in Peru. So far in 2013 500 have been already arrested between Peru and Colombia. Paradoxically while the number of people serving time in Spain for drug offences has been dramatically reduced since changes in the penal code, the number of Spaniards accused of drug trafficking in South American jails has significantly increased.

This trend is worrying Peruvian authorities that are seeing how their jails are getting filled with the weakest links of the international drug trade. Spaniards are now seen as cannon fodder of small trafficking networks: even pregnant women have been arrested. But even though Spain is the country of origin of the majority of those caught, every week some desperate European is arrested at a South American airport.

But how does an unemployed individual meet a member of an international trafficking organisation? An investigative report from a Spanish TV network La Sexta reveals that many drug mules are being recruited in soup kitchens by Nigerian criminal organisations. Taking advantage of the dire situation of the unemployed, intelligent and unscrupulous recruiters travel throughout Spain looking for vulnerable candidates to do their dirty work. The ones seduced by the promise of easy money are flown to South America posing as tourists where they stay a medium of 10 days before being sent back to Spain loaded with cocaine.

Those caught face a five or six year prison sentence; it is then when their world crumbles and they realise that they’ve been bamboozled into taking huge risks for relatively meagre amounts of cash. The value of a kilo of cocaine in Spain is more than €30,000. Most drug mules carry between 3 and 6 kilos, receiving less than 7% of the profit for taking the biggest risk – at least five years of their lives in a foreign prison thousands of kilometres away from home.

While European drug mules travel by plane to South America, hoping to get the crumbs of the international drug trade, most every week hundreds of sub-Saharan Africans risk their lives trying to get illegally into Europe by jumping the razor wire that separates the Spanish enclave of Melilla from Morocco. People will try anything to escape from poverty and desperation, but in many cases the end of the road is a filthy cell or an impenetrable barbed wire fence. They quickly learn that no matter how far they go, there is nowhere to run.