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Last Updated: Monday, 3 October 2005, 10:57 GMT 11:57 UK
Sunshine island's deadly trade
By Christine Jeavans
BBC News, Drake Hall prison, Staffordshire

The majority of foreign women in UK jails are there on drugs offences. Here, one Trinidadian woman explains why she risked her life and liberty by swallowing cocaine to smuggle into Britain.

Sonia Joseph (not her real name) in Drake Hall prison
Sonia Joseph was sentenced to five-and-a-half years in jail
When the men approached Sonia Joseph* and said they had a job for her she was pleased.

The single mother-of-six had had trouble making ends meet since moving to a village near Port of Spain, Trinidad, two years earlier.

She knew the two men - they had helped her out when she was between jobs, organising a car to take her children to school, sometimes bringing her food.

"I assumed that was a favour, a friendly gesture because they knew my cousins," she said. "I thought they were safe."

But what Sonia did not realise was that after two years spent winning her confidence, the men now required payment-in-kind for their "favours".

The BBC News website is exploring drugs in Britain in a special series of features which starts today.
We will look at how drugs get here, who uses them and whether current anti-drugs strategies are working.

The job, the men explained, meant swallowing packages of cocaine powder, tightly wrapped in latex and then going on a journey - she was not told where.

"I said 'I can pay some other way, through work'. They said 'it is not an option, you owe us.'"

If she did not comply, she was told, "anything might happen" to her children between home and school.


"This guy said 'If you want proof of what we can do, this young man we know, he was shot and he died, there was no investigation'. That frightened me."

A few days later Sonia, who was then 34, was taken to a strange house, shut in a room and was given 100 thumb-sized pellets to swallow.

Each of them contained well over the 1.2 grams of pure cocaine doctors consider to be a lethal oral dose.

It was frightful to be swallowing these things, it was horrible. I felt I was going to be sick
She was told to wash them down with Coca-Cola. Three men stood guard and every three hours another man would come to check she was getting on with the task.

"It was frightful to be swallowing these things, it was horrible. I felt I was going to be sick but they gave me some black coffee. I had only taken 20 and they said I had three hours to take the other 80."

Sonia was also given a list of answers to learn by heart to prepare her for questioning by immigration officials at her destination.


When she had finally managed to ingest all 100 packages she was put on a flight to London with another man whom she was to pretend was her common law husband.

She was told not to eat on the flight although she did anyway, little knowing that eating stimulates gastric juices which can burn through the latex and cause the bags to burst. Fortunately, this did not happen.

X-ray of a drugs courier who had swallowed cocaine packages

Her companion was "very nervous and sweating and pacing up and down", she said.

"He don't know me and I don't know him, we had no conversation and he was making me more nervous. My thought was never off getting through [customs]."

On arrival at Heathrow, the pair's anxiety was spotted and they were taken for urine tests. At this point Sonia cracked and confessed.

"When they stripped us, this customs officer said to me 'If you have anything it's better that you declare it now rather than go through the X-ray and make it harder for yourself'.

The separation from my loved ones, two years of my children's life, at the end it's not worth it
"She asked me if I have children and she told me the things that drugs do to people over here and it was at that point that I told her."

Sonia was sentenced to five-and-a-half years in prison. She has served 27 months and will be returning home soon, under a procedure by which foreign prisoners are deported at the point at which they would get parole were they British nationals.

Two of her six children - the youngest of whom was just a baby when she left - have been abused since she has been away and the family almost ended up in care.

On returning to Trinidad, Sonia wants to get a clerical job but also to work in the community, warning other single mothers about her experiences.

"The separation from my loved ones, two years of my children's life, at the end it's not worth it."

*Names have been changed for this article

The following comments reflect the balance of opinion we have received so far:

It is a shame that so many women and children have to suffer at the hands of people because of poverty. I think judges in the UK need to look at these cases very carefully before sentencing. Though genuine criminals may be using these stories as excuses, I stilll don't think people like Sonia should be punished for trying to make a living.
Nkonye Oyewusi, London, UK

I noticed in the article that you did not dwell on the consequences of the drugs that are smuggled into the United Kingdom. 'Sonia' is still a criminal, and less of a victim than many law-abiding citizens whose lives are destroyed by the drug trade.
David Young, Wroclaw Poland

It frustrates me that this woman had to go to jail. I hope she and her family will overcome this injustice and that the people respossible for causing this harm will and up in jail instead of their victims. This story just makes me very angry. How is it possible that this woman had to go to jail? Maybe lack of evidence to confirm her story? I really wish her strength and better times.
Sander Schaper, Haarlem, Netherlands

This is quite frankly appalling. I'm stunned that anyone could play on a mother's concern for her children like this. It seems that people will go to any lengths to manipulate and drag in honest individuals to a scene of unfolding distruction at the hands of drugs. I've seen what cocaine can do to people both physically and psychologically if they are lucky enough to overcome an addiction, but forcing someone to ingest this lethal dosage without consent, simply to fuel the addictions of others is disgraceful. I admire this woman's confidence to declare the drugs at customs. I hope she can get back to some form of normal family life as soon as possible on her return to Trinidad.
Hannah, Chesham, Buckinghamshire

We need to find a way to punish the guilty rather than their victims. This mother of 6 seemingly was blackmailed into doing something illegal, under menace to her children. As a result, she was sentenced to over five years in prison. I gather her children have been removed to foster homes where they learned to distrust their criminal mother... Everybody loses.
Peter Leeson, Milton Keynes, UK

Are we supposed to sympathise with drug smugglers now? Sad about her children, but sadder for the children in this country whose lives are destroyed by the filth that she smuggled.
James Walpole, Lincolnshire, England

A truly horrifying tale. And made all the worse because the person convicted and punished is just a disposable tool to the drug barons. What we need to do is to publish this story, not here, but in Jamaica because that is where we need people to change behaviour. Yet that too is difficult. For this message sits easily in our culture reinforcing our norms and expectations. When placed into a Jamaican context the message might simply be read as a warning not to accept help from others, thus feeding mistrust and deepening individual poverty.
Alastair Ross, Alford, Aberdeenshire, Scotland

I felt a swell of different contradicting emotions as I read her story... This should in any case not turn to the usual finger pointing and judgments... I just wish there could be that smart idea which would make sure that no one espescially no mother would have to suffer this way...
p.m., Nigerian in Munich, Germany

I'm not sure what purpose was served by imprisoning Sonia. I appreciate that drug offences must be taken seriously and punished appropriately. However, until the men who forced her into this situation are found and punished, nothing will change. And, let's face it, we would all do the same in her position.
Caroline, Cambridge, UK

What is the Trindad government doing to arrest thes low lifes that prey on single mothers and where are the low life dad's that leave their children to be abused since the mother was lock up for two years.
Ray Roman, Kuwait

If you supply a gun used in a murder then you are an accessory to murder. The same attitude should be taken with drug mules who play a vital role in the deaths of drug users. If she'd tried smuggling this much cocaine into Malaysia "Sonia" would have been hung: 27 months in jail is no deterent.
Peter, Nottingham

Why was this woman put in prison? Why wasn't she flown back to Trinidad with special police to help track down these bullies and put them in prison? Would not that have been a better use of money? And it would have allowed her to be there to protect her children. Sometimes the law is truly and ass!
Martin, Malton

I'm not convinced. I reckon these people know what they're getting into.
"Reality Check", Notts, UK

This is the story that every "swallower" tells. In my view, the overwhelming majority of couriers, act willingly for money. Couriers like Sonia would do well to tell the absolute truth when caught. I think that would lead governments in the west and in the Third World, where most mules come from, to address the socio-economic issues that force or entice otherwise law abiding people into this sad and despicable trade.
David F.K. Mpanga, Kampala, Uganda

What about our boys and girls locked up in foreign prisons with very little or no hope of repatriation. It can be seen that she was guilty, BUT, she did receive a fair trial. Not so with many of our own nationals who have to suffer the injustices of unfair trial procedures in foreign languages. Let's get some comment from those in government responsible for the welfare of nationals abroad.
Tony Aggett, Swindon. UK

Living in a state where drug abuses are treated like "terrorist activities" (even being falsely attributed to funding terroist networks) I realize the need for governments to step in and view individual cases with more scrutiny. In this ever loosing war on drugs we simply find that we are condeming the victims rather than the criminals. That action did little to deter to movement of drugs, it simply stopped one shipment. Its very similar to mandatory sentencing for possesion, does nothing to affect the trafficing, but ruins a single life over a simple crime.
matthew birch, austin, texas

Is there anything the Government is really doing to battle drug trafficking from the groundroot...cause aside using people who are pushed by situation.
Anthony Ugo, Lagos State,Nigeria

It is abominable that victims such as this woman should be imprisoned. It is easy for us to say that she should have gone to the authorities, but in reality, between corrupt officials and being afraid for her children, she had no choice whatsoever but to submit to her abusers.
sheila, canada

Yes, drug abuse is terrible, but is it completely unthinkable to try legalising drugs? I do not endorse simple legalisation, but so-called 'controlled legalistation', that is, selling over the counter under state control. If the Western world wants to solve the drugs problem, then it will have to address the roots of the problem, not the symptoms. Drug abuse and drug trafficking are symptoms.
D. Fear, Heidelberg, Germany

I feel very sad for the children. I think people should be clear from the start. When someone does something you should ask if they want something in return, and if so what. Otherwise, if it were a favour then it is something volunteered. She owed them nothing. It was the children who paid the price of a hideous crime. "What goes around comes around."
Fatima, Ottawa, Canada

"Sonia" is telling an all-too-common story. People have a desperate need to take care of themselves and their families, and there are those who have no morals when it comes to taking advantage of that need. Sometimes there are no options but to comply in order to keep the ones you love from further harm. Those of us who have never been in a similar situation have no right to pass judgement.
M.L. Zambrana, Los Angeles, CA USA

I read what happened to Sonia with a shock!! My question is will she be safe when she gets back home? What about those thugs who made her do that were they caught? Can't the British government give her amnesty and let her live in England and raise her children there? She is young she can do unskilled jobs I hope.
Milembe, Dodoma, Tanzania

Would it not be better to set up a sting operation using these women instead of sending them to prison? Are any of the drug pushers who use these women every caught?
Earl Joseph, Reaboro,Canada

Thank you for all your comments, this debate is now closed.

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