Drug smuggling approaches follow one of two basic strategies: by using a courier who is knowingly a participant or taking advantage of an unsuspecting victim. Within these two types of transport there are endless possibilities. “Their bottom line is to make money, and they are going to do whatever they can to ensure that that happens,” said Mike Unzueta, the special agent in charge for Immigration and Customs Enforcement in San Diego. “They’ve become very, very creative.” (1)
1) The Direct Participant
Transporting illegal drugs across international borders by direct courier is an every-day occurrence. Some methods are simple while others can be quite sophisticated requiring special skills or equipment. Three common methods involve concealing drugs: on a person, inside people or animals and inside objects or vehicles.
Drug Smuggling On a Person
Regardless of how a person plans to cross the border, many smugglers will choose to simply carry the goods on them. Women remove the stuffing from padded bras and replace the padding with cocaine. The soles of shoes are hollowed and filled with drugs. Obese individuals have avoided detection by simply placing drugs under rolls of fat where they won’t be noticed in a pat-down search. Law enforcement officials even search children and infants because smugglers assume minors won’t be suspected.
Drug Smuggling Inside People or Animals
To avoid detection by drug sniffing dogs, property searches or frisking, smugglers ingest drugs hidden in balloons or condoms. Called body packers, these couriers lubricate their throats to swallow the balloon and then take laxatives to remove the drugs quickly once they have safely crossed the border. This process can be painful and even result in death if the balloon ruptures inside the host.
Rather than taking the risk of ingesting drugs themselves, traffickers often exploit animals by surgically implanting packets of narcotics under the skin. This method has been discovered in a host of animals from exotic pets like snakes to pure bred dogs supposedly on their way to dog shows.
Drug Smuggling Inside Objects or Vehicles
A common way people try to hide drugs is by creating a hidden compartment or false bottom in a piece of luggage. This allows couriers to carry larger quantities of drugs, making fewer trips and increasing profits. What looks like an innocent baby bottle with milk in it could have an ounce of cocaine stashed in a bladder underneath. Inside a vehicle’s windshield wiper tank or the tire rims are also likely places for border patrol to check.
Larger smuggling operations with more resources look for ways to increase revenue by shipping more drugs with the least amount of risk and the most reliability. Fabrics and cardboard items are soaked in liquid heroin, dried and once across the border the heroin is extracted. To avoid typical fishing and cargo ship seizures, cartels began utilizing semi-submersibles and even submarines. Single engine planes are replacing larger two engine planes because they have the ability to land in more remote locations and on rougher terrain.
2) The Unwitting Participant
Taking advantage of an unsuspecting courier has the advantage of distancing the drug trafficker from the narcotics when crossing the border, reducing the risk of arrest. Public transportation, postal services and legal cargo shipping companies are three examples of delivery services that are taken advantage of. Because they transport larger quantities with fewer shipments, the profit margin increases making these forms of transport even more favorable.
“The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimate profits derived from illicit drug trafficking worldwide at about $600 billion, or 7.6% of global trade. The profit margin for drug dealing ranges from 300% to 2,000%.” (2)
Drug Smuggling on Public Transportation
International modes of public transportation like bus lines with lots of travelers are frequent targets. Once aboard, s/he will hide the drugs in a public location like the restroom. Once safely across the border and ready to debark, the smuggler will remove the drugs and carry them off the bus. Should the bus be searched by border patrol and the drugs found, being one of many passengers gives the smuggler deniability.
Another approach has utilized international cruise ships. Divers attach containers filled with drugs to the outer hull of the ship. Once the ship docks in its destination port, divers retrieve the drugs for distribution.
Drug runners plant drugs on unwary travelers or in the vehicles of regular border commuters. If the unsuspecting traveler makes it over the border avoiding arrest then the smuggler will recover the drugs. Baggage handlers are sometimes hired to plant drugs in luggage at terminals that utilize baggage claim services. The luggage is cleverly marked so that partners on the other side of the border will know which contain the drugs.
Drug Smuggling with the Postal Services
Most people use some form of postal service every day. The sheer mass of letters and packages being transported through USPS, Fed Ex, UPS and others gives the drug traffickers a certain level of protection because not every package can be inspected. They choose rush delivery options to further decrease the chances of detection because the pressure to deliver on time reduces the risk of time-consuming package checks.
Drug Smuggling with Legal Cargo Shipping Companies
Whether by air, sea or land, drug cartels slip their illicit drugs into the country with the constant stream of legitimate cargo entering the country legally. From disguising them among produce to hiding them inside dog food bags, the traffickers have an endless supply of imports to choose from.
“Traffickers often hide drugs among legitimate cargo in maritime containers, a fraction of which are inspected. Analysis of commercial maritime seizure data for 2004 through 2009 indicates that cocaine and marijuana are most often smuggled in commercial maritime vessels from Caribbean locations, such as the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Jamaica, into East Coast ports in Florida and New Jersey.” (3)
So long as there is a demand, drug traffickers will continue to find creative methods to transport illicit drugs across the US border. Penalties are high and the fear of prosecution often results in violence and death for both smugglers and law enforcement. The results can be as devastating for smugglers as the drugs are to users.
“In 2010, the DEA seized: 29,179 kg of cocaine, 690 kg of Heroin, 722,476 kg of marijuana, 2,067 kg of Methamphetamines and 2,578,935 doses of hallucinogens. Over the course of the same year, the DEA made 30,922 arrests.” (4)
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(1) Deborah Feyerick, Michael Cary and Sheila Steffen – CNN – Drug smugglers becoming more creative, U.S. agents say April 16, 2009
(2) RIA Novosti – Drug-trafficking profits March 5, 2010
(3) United States Drug Enforcement Administration – Drug Movement Into and Within the United States February 2010
(4) United States Drug Enforcement Administration – Stats and Facts