Midnight, Lima airport. The sniffer dogs are patrolling the departures area. Suddenly, passengers give way as six police officers, members of the anti drugs squad, march purposefully across the airport concourse. Two of them have their arms linked into those of a young man, bearded, in his 20s, wearing a red T shirt and with his wrists bound in handcuffs behind his back. They take him to an office set aside for the purpose and the police officers tear open his suitcase. Sewn into the linings, they pull out six plastic bags containing four kilos of cocaine. I sit next to the young Spaniard as he slumps in to his chair in despair. “It was a moment of madness” he says to me, “and I now face years in prison.”
“The economy of the country is drugs”
The Peruvian police say they are arresting a drugs mule every second night and that the country’s prisons are now filled to bursting point. The drug mule business was once dominated by Peruvians, Colombians and Ecuadorians. With unemployment now 60% for 18 to 25 year olds in some areas of Spain, they are seeing many more young Spaniards. But the mules come from every country in Europe. Two young British girls were arrested at Lima airport in August. Even Germany, one of the few countries in Europe where there is still work, has produced its quota of mules.
I met Nicole Burlscher, a 41 year old hairdresser from Dortmund, at a convent in the centre of Lima where the nuns have been looking after her since her release from prison six months ago. She told me she was bipolar, a mental illness which when it is in its manic phase can lead to compulsive shopping. She was badly in debt when “they offered me 10,000 euros to carry three kilos of cocaine from Peru to Holland.” What she did not know at the time was that the drugs, if they had got through, would have sold for fifty times that amount in the cities of Europe.
She hid the drugs in a swimsuit as she checked in at Lima airport. “They felt the drugs as they patted me down while going through the security check”. She was arrested and sentenced to six and a half years in jail. The stupidity of hiding drugs in such an obvious, amateurish way did not make sense when Nicole first told me her story. After all, she had been hired by professionals.
An explanation was provided by another drugs mule who has been sleeping rough on the beach in Lima since he was released from prison a year ago. “I was a small fish” Gavin Gebhardt from South Africa, told me. “They catch the small fish so the guy with a lot of drugs gets through.” He says that when he was arrested, he saw a police officer with a passenger list in his hand who said to his colleagues that he had to go because there was another of the “little ones” about to check in and he had to go an arrest him. “They’ve got people in the police, they’ve got people in the airport. They’ve got people in organised crime. All of them are on the payroll. The economy of the country is drugs.”
Peru is now the biggest producer of coca leaf in the world, overtaking Colombia for the first time in 20 years. Flying in a police helicopter over the Pichis Pacalzu valley, 800 kilometers north east of Lima, the jungle looks like a patchwork of thick trees interspersed with green clearings. Every clearing is devoted to the coca leaf. Alongside the rivers, you can see the illegal airstrips which the drug traffickers use to export the coca paste to Bolivia, Paraguay or Brazil from where it is exported to Europe and Asia. There are makeshift laboratories hidden in the thick jungle where they can manufacture the white powder that is given to the mules.
I watched the police teams as they uprooted the plants and blew up the laboratories and illegal airstrips, leaving large craters in the latter so that the aircraft would not be able to land. The explosions and their efficiency were impressive; but they do not solve the problem. For every airstrip blown up, dozens remain operational elsewhere. There are areas of Peru where the anti- drugs teams do not dare operate, such is the strength of the drug barons, backed up by the infamous Shining Path terrorist movement which is now heavily involved in the drug business.
“They will kill you”
So long as the coca plant thrives, there will be drugs mules prepared to carry the end product. Nicole Burlscher said the prisons were filled with young women who were too afraid to cooperate with the authorities in order to reduce their sentences. “They will get you, even in the prison”, she explains, “and they will kill you. You must not say anything.”
She can’t go home because, although she has served her sentence, she must pay a 4000-euro fine to the Peruvian government before she will be allowed to leave and she cannot afford the fine or the flight home. “I would love to be home for Christmas”, she says with tears welling in her eyes, “I just want my life back.”
Our World: Peru’s Cocaine Trail will be broadcasted on BBC World News on December 7 and 8. Find more information here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03ltk0v