Drug Mules: Couriers of doom

October 2010


Globally over 185 million people consume illicit drugs annually.  Countless numbers are involved in the production and trafficking of these illicit substances and so many more are ravaged and “ crippled “ by the drug scourge, not to mention the social and economic devastation impacted by addiction and trafficking.  The drug trends are alarming and pervading the future of youths in every community notwithstanding geographical or political boundaries.  Drug trafficking has become a most lucrative business and ensure a never ending supply to those hooked on the substance.  It is in trafficking illicit drugs that “ mules “ come to the fore and their numbers are ever increasing as demands increase and profits soar.


Etymologically the term derives from “ Mule “ as a beast of burden.  Drug Mule, at times called Mule, Kinder Surprise and Easter Egg refers to someone who smuggles drugs on their person or in their luggage across borders especially in small amounts, transported for a smuggling organization.  Such organizations employ mules to reduce the risk of getting caught themselves, while often profiting the most.  The mule typically get paid an amount which is small compared with the profits made by the organization, but large enough for somebody with little money, so that it seems to be an easy way of making money.

Modus Operandi

Drug mules employ various methods of smuggling drugs across borders.  Wikipedia reported that methods of smuggling include hiding the goods in a vehicle, luggage or clothes, clothing items soaked in water filled with cocaine, strapping them to one’s body, or using the body as container.  The latter mainly apply for heroin and cocaine, and sometimes for ecstasy.  It is often done by swallowing latex balloons ( usually condoms or fingers of latex gloves ) or special pellets filled with the abovementioned drugs, and recovering them from the feces later.  Sometimes drug packages are directly inserted into the anus or vagina.  An average drug mule can swallow between 80 – 125 of these pellets.  These would contain a total of 800 grams – 1.25 kg. of the drugs concerned. This kind of smuggler is called swallower or internal carrier and this method is called body packing or body stuffing.  A mule may carry anything from a few grams up to 10kg. on them; up to 2kg. if the drug is swallowed.

This method gains popularity because routine detection of the smuggled packets is extremely difficult, and many cases come to light only because packets ruptured or because of intestinal obstruction.  Unruptured packets may sometimes be detected by rectal or vaginal examination, but the only reliable way is by X-ray of the abdomen.  Hashish appears denser than stool, cocaine is approximately the same density as stool, while heroin looks like air.

Investigation Discovery highlighted the top 8 methods of smuggling drugs.  One, by stomach, ie numbing their throats then swallowing the drugs using latex balloons, pellets or packets.  Two, by flip-flops, furnitre, golf balls etc.  Three, by puppies,  These are dogs declared to customs as show dogs.  Four, by children.  Strapping drugs to certain parts of childrens’ bodies.  Five, by bugs, ie cutting the beetle’s stomachs and stuffing them with drugs.  Six, by tombstones.  Drugs are hidden in the tombstones that pass through customs.  Seven, by computer.   Spaces in the computers are filled with drugs.  Eight, by bra ie,  hiding drugs in the bra itself.

The fact is, smugglers devised all sorts of methods to hoodwink the authorities  They somehow are always one step ahead of detection but sooner or later they meet their Waterloo.


Smuggling is indeed lucrative business.  Risks are taken because returns are high.  It is an undeniable fact that many smugglers get through checkpoints, customs and other  enforcement authorities.  Nevertheless, the numbers caught are increasing.  The authorities have become wiser to the ploys, techniques and tactics of smugglers.  What is alarming is the rapid increase in the number of women drug mules.

All over the world, those caught are languishing in jails awaiting their fate.  In one year (2002/2003 ) at JF Kennedy Airport, 145 drug mules were intercepted.  Of these 38 were females and 107 were males.   In the UK in 2003, statistics confirmed that over 50% of foreign females in UK jails were drug mules from Jamaica.  In all, around 18% 0f the UK’s female jail population are foreigners, 60% of which are serving sentences for drug-related offences – most of them drug mules.  In 2005, The African Ministry of Foreign Affairs estimated that 865 of its citizens were in jails abroad for drug trafficking.  IPS News  reported that in Peru, in 2005, 249 mules were arrested, in 2006, there were 454 arrests and in 2007, the number rose to 721, carrying a total of nearly four tons of cocaine.  Of the 721 arrested, 453 were Peruvians, 45 Spanish 29 Dutch and 18 Brazilians.  In Santa Monica women’s prison in Lima, there are 1,275 inmates  accused of drug related crimes: 942 Peruvians and 207 foreigners.  Some 240 have already been convicted and sentenced.

Today in  many countries in the world such as Malaysia, Singapore, Bangladesh, Thailand, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia China and Vietnam,  drug trafficking is a capital offence carrying a mandatory death sentence, while in most other countries, punishment are severe.  It is therefore not surprising to find thousands of drug mules languishing in jails all over the world, some awaiting their fate and some others have their fate already sealed.  For some who had the misfortune of being caught and held in countries whose judicial system is less than perfect, they have no recourse for representation or for a court hearing.  National Geographic had produced a series called, “ Locked up Abroad “.  The series highlighted cases of people caught for trafficking and other offences abroad whose normal lives turned into absolute nightmares overnight and in many cases were totally  cut off from the outside world.  The desperation, the helplessness, the uncertainty and the overpowering fear were only too real.

In some cases drug mules may escape detection but another horrendous fate awaits them. Drug mules employing the method of body packing or body stuffing may have the containers of the drugs they swallowed,  rupturing or bursting inside them.  They suffer difficulties in breathing, suffer heart attacks and sometimes death.  In 2007, a body packer, a 23 year old British woman suffered a massive heart attack while on a transatlantic flight.  She had swallowed 60 packets of cocaine and the packets ruptured.  She was dead by the time the plane made an emergency landing.  There are so many cases of body packers suffering severe consequences because of ruptured containers.

Drug Mules: The Malaysian Scenario.

According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Malaysia, 1,597 Malaysian citizens are held overseas for crimes committed.  790 are related to drug crimes and 150 of them are women.  In Latin America, more Malaysian women were detained as drug mules compared with men.  In Peru alone, of the 15 arrested, 13 were women.  In Shanghai, China, 4 Malaysian women are serving life sentences in prison after they were found guilty of drug trafficking.  A fifth woman is awaiting sentence.  All five are in their twenties.  In Indonesia, between January and May 2010, 12 Malaysians were arrested for drug trafficking including a 52 year old Malaysian transvestite caught with drugs worth RM50.000 around his stomach.

A few specific cases that can be highlighted are as follows

* Raja Munira Raja Iskandar Shah.  Jailed for 7 years and 4 months in Tokyo for       smuggling 690.80 grams of syabu.    

* Umi Azlim Mohd Lazim.  Age 24, a university student, in Shantou, China, facing a life sentence for smuggling 3 kg of heroin.

* Irene Manggi, 22, in a Sao Paolo prison, Brazil, charged with smuggling cocaine.

* Dayang Sakienah Mat Lazim,  20, jailed for 6 years in Maltya for drug smuggling

* Norfaizura Azura Alias, 21 and 3 months pregnant, jailed for 9 years in Malta for trafficking 2 kg of heroin.

* Nirmala, 26 and pregnant, jailed in Sydney, Australia for smuggling 25 packets of heroin weighing 105 grams via her stomach.

* Christina anak Luke Niju, 22, sold in China after being used as a drug mule by an African syndicate.

*Nur Dhiya Ain Rosman, 19,  caught in Capetown, South Africa for smuggling 1.2 kg of syabu.

Why Do They Do It

Drug mules are pawns in the International Narcotics trade.  Law enforcement agencies across the globe are observing a worrying upward trend of vulnerable persons being recruited as drug mules or couriers into the international drug trade.  ISS Today suggested that the profile of a mule usually fits that of an unemployed , financially desperate person who may not have travelled before.  The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Malaysia put forward this profile of  female drug  mules.  They are attractive, between the ages of 19 and 30; educated, no criminal record, working in the travel, hospitality, marketing and communication sectors and coming from problem homes.

Armed with this knowledge, drug syndicates lure their targets into becoming drug mules.

Any ploy will do as long as it works, be it love, money, trips to exotic places or subtle trickery and deception.  The recruiters come from all corners of the world, displaying various ploys and deception.  To a certain extent they operate undetected.  Some arrive in the country posing as businessmen, tourists or students to camouflage their scams.  They are on the move most of the time, depending on the situation and needs

The modus operandi employed by drug syndicate recruiters include the followings

    * The promise of easy money.  This is most attractive to those unemployed or with very little money.  For those in debt, a successful trip can rake in enough money to settle their debts with a bit extra for enjoyment.

     * The promise of holidays in exotic locations such as Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo, Mumbai, Tokyo, Bangkok plus cash. They, however will be asked to carry with them some bags or packages. For those who rarely travel, this is a great opportunity indeed:  the excitement, the adventure in a foreign land.  Its like a dream come true.

The use of sexual favours to lure recruits and when they had become used to this, they would willingly do the biddings of the providers in order to maintain their needs.

     * Promising employment with high salaries and travels abroad.  All they have to do is to deliver certain stuff and bring back some for the company.  For those with good qualifications, the job offers are really attractive.  They believe they deserve the opportunities given to them and can live in style.

    * Using love as a powerful tool of deception.  The lover boys are usually foreigners.  They are usually charming,, good looking, know how to sweet talk and live in posh condominiums.  They make all sorts of promises and women usually got swept off their feet with the offer of money and a luxury life style.  When they are hooked, they will be put to work.

      It is interesting to note that most of them who got caught would swear that they were tricked.  Indeed for most of them, they were tricked with their eyes wide open.  Most of these people know exactly what they were doing.  One has to be absolutely stupid not to suspect someone who would offer you money and free travel for doing next to nothing.  For those who are the victims of love, they too know what they have been asked to do.  There was a case of a 43 year old Peruvian woman who attempted to travel to Buenos Aires with one kg of cocaine in her stomach, together with her children aged 17 and 15, who had also swallowed drugs.  The woman had been promised USD3.000.  Being poor, she had accepted the offer.  USD3,000 is a lot of money.  Notwithstanding the circumstances, she knew exactly what she was doing.

Prevention Strategies


Governments are well aware of the increasing number of drug mules all over the world.  There had been efforts made to cooperate and to coordinate preventive programmes.  The ASEAN Senior Officers Drug meeting (ASOD) do address the issue of smuggling and the rise in the number of women drug mules.  The Malaysian police and customs also have discussions on strategies with their counterparts in Hong Kong, Thailand and Indonesia.   The Malaysian Airport authorities are always reminding travelers on the severe penalties for drug trafficking.  The Malaysian Police Narcotics Department had set up a task force to deal with the problem of drug mules.  The task force collaborate with Interpol and police of other countries to track down members of the international drug syndicate who are out to recruit local women as drug mules.  The suspects would be detained and if no drugs were found on them, they will be deported.  These measures by the Malaysian police had paid dividends.  As of May this year, only eight women have been detected to be conned into drug mules.  In 2009, the Malaysian authorities 34 foreigners; 7 from Nigeria, 11 from Peru,   3 from South Africa, 10 from India and one each from China,, Philippines and Bolivia.  The drug haul was 4 kg of heroin, 2 kg of cocaine and 18 kg of ketamine.  From January to June this year, 17 foreigners were detained.  2 from Singapore, 6 from Nigeria1 from Iran, 3 from Pakistan, 2 from Thailand and 3 from Indonesia.  The drug haul was 786 grams of syabu and 14.64 kg of heroin.

According to the Malaysian police, most of the foreigners involved in the drug trade came from South Africa, West Africa, Nigeria, Pakistan, Peru, India and Iran.  Close police surveillance had forced the foreign syndicates to switch their attention to women from neighbouring countries like the Philippines, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia and Brunei.  Internationally, serious efforts are being made to curb this phenomenon, however it is still an uphill battle.  There are always the perennial problems of shortage of funds, manpower and up to date equipments.  The traffic volume in international travels today is phenomenal, whether they be airports, train or bus terminals.  Most of the cases detected are because of tip-offs or the suspicious nature of certain travellers. 


NGOs can play an important role especially in the dessimination of information.   Preventive education can be an important tool, just as it is in preventive drug education work.  NGOs can also act as pressure groups with regards to certain government policies that may inadvertantly provide loopholes for drug syndicates.  In Malaysia for example, the country’s open sky policy as well as globalization and the latest technology have somehow or other facilitated these drug syndicates to activate their network, making Malaysia a transit point.  The internet is an easy and convenient way of making contacts with local women and the resulting entrapment.  Likewise the Malaysian Visa on arrival policy is also being questioned.  It is a convenience offered by the Malaysian government to visitors but it had been abused by those with shady agendas.

PEMADAM Malaysia, headed by its Secretary General are now developing strategies to combat the problem of drug mules and drug trafficking in general.  PEMADAM will be engaging the relevant ministries, authorities, universities, schools , parents and NGOs to address these issues.  PEMADAM is also pushing for laws in relation to the responsibilities of house owners and tenants as well as laws that will revoke immediately the student visas granted to those who came in as students but who did not register themselves in any institution of higher learning in the country.  Apart from this, PEMADAM will be conducting an in depth study of drug mules cases, to develop profiles of drug mules as well as their family circumstances.  PEMADAM is also planning to set up a one stop centre to handle cases of drug mules victims.  The main objectives are to assist the relevant authorities in the matter and to develop awareness in parents.  PEMADAM will also be looking into the possibility of using National Geographic series “Locked up Abroad” as a teaching-learning aid for students and parents.

The Media

The media can play a very vital role in creating awareness in society.  There is a serious need not to glamourize the drug culture, instead, the horrendous and ugly side of it needs to be highlighted. The film industry too has a major role to play.  In general the media has helped but the new technology in IT is posing a serious threat.  The internet can be positive as well as negative, depending on its use or abuse.  Lots of negative things are happening online; sale of drugs as well as a source of social interaction for drug syndicates and their future victims.  Any government intervention is regarded as curbing human rights as well as repression of the press.  Somehow in most countries around the world, censorship is a dirty word and yet, censorship is necessary under certain circumstances, especially with regards to  public morality, public order and national security.  Thus, where the media is concerned, there is a need for balance and a need to inform or report in a responsible way for the good of society


Parents are the people closest to the problem and if anything goes wrong, they will be the ones bearing the brunt of it..  Therefore they must be the people to take responsibility and to be totally involved in the life, welfare and well being of their children.  Parents need to be informed of the problems that can befall their children, in this case, the problem of being involved with drugs.  They need to be aware of their children’s friends, the whereabouts of their children as well as their activities.  Granted that in today’s fast and demanding world, this is easier said than done, nevertheless, there is no room for the abdication of parental responsibilities.  Someone once said that in the war against drugs, parents have become the ‘missing link”  The Star, a national daily in Malaysia reported on Friday 13th August 2010 about the nightmare of a 43 year old mother.  Her daughter, 19 had gone missing.  On the 9th of August she received a phone call at midnight from her daughter telling her that she was at KLIA with an African man waiting to board a plane to Africa.   When she received no further news from her daughter, she believed her daughter was being used as a drug mule and feared for her future.  Would things have been different if she had monitored her daughter’s activities?  Probably yes.


After all has been said and done, the one who would lose the most is oneself.  It is your life, literallily, your future, in fact your everything.  “ Beware of Greeks bearing gifts “, as the saying goes.  The baits are great but beware of the hooks hidden within.  Notwithstanding your circumstances, do not be gullible or be easily duped.  Be wary of suave men or enticing women for that matter.  Learn to be suspicious, especially of foreigners with great suits, flashing lots of money and offering you all kind of goodies.  Avoid carrying luggage or parcels  when you do not know what’s inside them. The high life you dream of will turn into  nightmares  pretty quickly.  Learn from the many cases of people who have been conned by drug syndicates, whose lives have become absolute hell, in foreign land to boot.  Empower yourself to say no and no harm will come to you.


Drug mules: Couriers of Doom refers to the double edged outcomes of the work of these mules.  On the one hand, the drugs they smuggled will provide the supplies needed by syndicates for distribution to junkies.  What the mules have done is to cater for the dependencies of these junkies.  Whether directly or indirectly, the mules have contributed to the misery and deprivation of these addicts and even their demise.  Indeed the mules have helped to sustain the drug syndicates and the drug market.

On the other hand, these mules are not doing any favours for themselves.  In fact their involvement could be their own death warrants.  For the pittance they received in comparison to the amount the syndicate made,  they are putting their heads on the chopping blocks for very little.  There are a few things that can happen to them.  If caught they can be jailed for life or face the death penalty.  If they are swallowers, they can die if the drug containers or pellets they swallowed ruptured, as stomach acid can sometimes cause this.  Death is usually very quick, the result of breathing problems and heart failure.  What is also sad is that these mules are merely used as decoys.  The South American authorities use the term “ dead cows for piranhas “ What this means is, a large percentage of mules are earmarked to never complete a successful drug transaction.  Instead they serve as the “ dead meat “ that detracts attention from drug-smuggling professionals.  The authorities will be tipped off and while they are busy arresting the mule, the professional with a larger amount of drugs will pass through undetected.

In conclusion therefore drug mules are hardly winners.  Nevertheless, they still exist because everyone has got his or her own needs and agendas.  However, governments will not let up in their efforts to smash the syndicates that created these mules.  And governments, even with all their competent agencies,  need the support of others if they are to succeed, be they NGOs, educational institutions or parents.  All need to work in tandem. Parents especially need to play a mawerejor role. The fact is, parents have the most to lose if their children’s lives get derailed.


Paper presented at the 19th.IFNGO ASEAN NGOs Workshop

October 2010, Manila, Philippines.


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