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Thursday, 3 January, 2002, 17:43 GMT
Cocaine mules 'aware of risk'
Roadblock in Kingston last July
Political violence has worsened poverty in Jamaica
by BBC News Online's Chris Hamilton

The attention being focused on cocaine drug mules coming to the UK from Jamaica has come as no surprise to those close to the sharp end on the small Caribbean island.

According to the British High Commission in the capital, Kingston, dozens of smugglers are on every flight to London.

The government attitude seems to be 'they acted illegally so they and their families got what they deserved'

Charity worker Bobby Sephestine
Deputy High Commissioner Phil Sinkinson has even suggested a newspaper report claiming one in 10 passengers were smuggling drugs could be an underestimate.

Bobby Sephestine, a volunteer charity worker who works closely with convicted "mules" and their families in Jamaica, agrees and says the figure could be close to 20 people on some flights.

He believes the drug barons have recently mounted a concerted effort to flood security checks.

"The picture I am getting from talking to people on the ground is that efforts have been made to quite simply overwhelm the system," he told BBC News Online.

"Their thinking is that even if three, four or five get caught on one flight others will get through - enough to make it worthwhile."

Christmas push

That attitude is passed on to the would-be mules, who hear of the few who make it through undetected and are persuaded that the risk is worth taking.

Christmas and a tough economic climate fuelled a particular push, with families desperate for extra cash providing willing new recruits.

The couriers are typically single mothers with three or four children, often with further family responsibilities such as parents to support, according to Mr Sephestine.

The effects on families when mules are caught are "terrible", he goes on.

The drug mules say the economic situation is so desperate they will take the chance

Freelance journalist Pat Roxborough
"Most times when they are doing it the children and other family members are totally unaware what they've been up to.

"The shock is one thing but the kids are normally totally traumatised, and most times the care is just not put in place for them afterwards.

"The government attitude seems to be 'they acted illegally so they and their families got what they deserved'."

Often it is cash-strapped voluntary organisations, such as the British-based Hibiscus charity that Mr Sephestine works for, that have to pick up the pieces.

Economy blamed

Pat Roxborough is a freelance journalist working in Jamaica and has covered many aspects of the drug smuggling trade.

She told BBC News Online an economic downturn was largely to blame for an increase in mules, with a swathe of recent factory closures adding to the widespread poverty.

"Most of them live in deprived areas, where there is a developed network with different levels of 'workers' in the drug trade who know people's name, their address and when they're in difficulties.

"They keep watch, working out whether a potential mule has the right mentality not to squeal to the police if approached and a friendship is struck up leading to that approach."

She says the recruitment system is complex and well developed - with even some church pastors recently implicated.

But the mules are not nave, Ms Roxborough stresses, as they know the risks they face from being caught and the potentially fatal result of a swallowed package of cocaine bursting.

Tighter security call

According to Mr Sephestine a concerted joint effort to combat the trade needs to be launched by both Britain and Jamaica.

"We need to implore both countries to implement a programme where people boarding flights are examined properly, with sensitive X-ray machines and full searches.

"If more mules were stopped in Jamaica, fewer would be tempted to go abroad, fewer would be tempted to try it at all.

"At the moment they are flooding the system and enough are passing through, or enough seemingly passing through, to make the risk seem viable to others."

And he warns the situation could get even worse for Britain and its neighbours, with increased airport security in the wake of 11 September putting smugglers off America.

"I think it's important that those in London look at the situation carefully at this time because of the situation in north America - the energies and efforts of the drug barons are now being directed much more towards Europe now."

The BBC's Jon Silverman
"There are couriers willing to risk prison or death"
Deputy High Commissioner in Jamaica Phil Sinkinson
"They are doing it for the money"
Metropolitan Police Authority Chairman Lord Harris
"It is not appropriate to get hysterical"
See also:

03 Jan 02 | Americas
Life of a drug mule
02 Jan 02 | Country profiles
Country profile: Jamaica
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