When drug mules land in Ireland
As Michaela McCollum Connolly and Melissa Reid wait in jail for their trial in Peru, what becomes of foreigners who are caught trying to smuggle narcotics into Ireland?
On guard: customs officer Declan Smyth looks through a one-way mirror in the baggage hall at Dublin Airport. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
On guard: customs officer Declan Smyth scans luggage at Dublin Airport. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
On guard: Lottie, a customs dog, finds a suitcase full of cigarettes during a random sniff through luggage at Dublin Airport. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
Detained: Michaella McCollum Connolly and Melissa Reid, arrested at Lima airport on suspicion of smuggling cocaine to Spain, enter the Justice Court of Callao in Peru. Photograph: Mariana Bazo/Reuters
It’s a dry, mild evening in the summer of 2006, and five gardaí are up to their necks in paperwork at a Dublin Garda station. The ring of the telephone breaks the tedium. One of the gardaí picks up the phone to a man with a British accent. “I have information,” he says. “There is a 19-year-old male sitting on a bus on board a ferry arriving from London shortly. He has drugs strapped to his legs.”
The voice goes on to describe, in minute detail, the physical features and clothing of the man on the bus, and the gardaí swing into action. When they arrive to meet the ferry they find the teenager easily – with almost two two kilos of cannabis strapped to him.
“The only people who could have known that information in that detail were the people who gave him the drugs in the first place,” says one of the gardaí. He is a former member of the Garda National Drugs Unit, which investigates domestic and international drug trafficking.
“I always got the feeling he was set up,” he says. “He had crossed someone or done something and someone decided to do a job on him. This guy was just an eejit. He was far from a person who would have been capable of importing and exporting drugs.” The teenager ended up in custody here for six to eight months, awaiting trial.
Michaella McCollum Connolly, who is 20 and from Dungannon, Co Tyrone, and Melissa Reid, who is also 20 and from Glasgow, were arrested in Peru last month as they waited to board a flight from Lima to Madrid. More than €1.7 million worth of cocaine was found in their luggage.
Their story has attracted huge attention in Ireland as people try to piece together how two young women could have found themselves in such a perilous situation.
But what becomes of the dozens of foreigners who arrive in Ireland every year in similarly desperate conditions, seeking to smuggle large quantities of illegal narcotics into the State, and are caught? Why do they risk it, and what can their circumstances be?
Shay Doyle, customs manager at Dublin Airport, says that although his officers have come across “professional” mules who fly all over the world with drugs concealed within their bodies for profit, a significant number have no choice. Members of various arms of the State’s justice system say they sympathise with some of them.
“There was an engineer from South Africa caught bringing cannabis in,” says Doyle. “He couldn’t get a job because he was on the very lowest rung of people to get a job due to the societal structure out there. He said he did it to buy a birthday present for his child.
“There was also a retired schoolteacher who was caught and put in jail. She was actually then teaching in Mountjoy. She was offered early release but didn’t want to take it because she would have had to give up her teaching.
“A lot of them are actually very relieved when they are caught, particularly the international ones, because it means they are taken out of that whole cycle. If they are going to be in jail here, it is a better alternative. While our officers will sympathise with those people, they still have to apply the law. These are people bringing dangerous narcotics into our country, so the officers have to remain detached.”
There is a minimum 10-year sentence for anyone caught with drugs worth more than €13,000 in the Republic, although this can be lowered in exceptional circumstances. The criminal-law expert Paul Anthony McDermott says the brunt of this heavy sentence is being borne by the mules rather than by the people who control and plan the importation of drugs.
“Some of the mules are in desperate personal and financial difficulties,” he says. “Some of them have been glad to get a 10-year sentence, because for the first time in prison they are being fed and accommodated. The system has come across people who are happy to spend time in prison because they are safe and had literally no money; nowhere to live in their own country; nothing, absolutely nothing.
“Everybody thinks lots of big drug dealers are being locked up when in fact quite often the people coming before the courts are pitiful creatures who have committed a very serious crime. They are in such desperate financial difficulties they are willing to risk anything, because they have nothing to live for. Those are the most difficult cases.”
The former drug-unit member says criminals lent money and allowed debts they were owed to accumulate during the boom. “Before then you wouldn’t have been allowed to accumulate that sort of debt,” he says. “But since money became so free during the boom times in Ireland, people were allowed to accumulate debt and then were absolutely pawned by the criminals. People are under pressure, under threat of violence over their debts, and this is how they’re told to get out of it.”
Anybody who tries to smuggle drugs into Ireland faces a daunting task. Dublin Airport is a high-security facility guarded by experienced officers using sophisticated technology.
Domestic and international intelligence informs policing at the airport, and resources are focused on red-flag flight paths between zones known for drugs. Officers then monitor people whose criminal record or peculiar flight history has raised a red flag. The baggage from such flights will be inspected by sniffer dogs.
The former drug-unit member says this type of profiling plays a major role in detecting mules. “If you’re going backwards and forwards to Amsterdam every four weeks, and there is no reason for you to go there, you’ll stand out like a sore thumb on the system,” he says.
When these people disembark they will be monitored by CCTV as they move around the airport. They are also watched from observation rooms behind one-way mirrors at the baggage carousels.
Doyle says drug lords are getting smarter and have begun using mules without criminal records. “The challenge for us is to stay one step ahead of them, because when we make seizures here they always react,” says Doyle.
“Earlier in the year we were getting a lot of swallowers coming in. It’s changed now to concealments in suitcases. That’s them reacting to what we do. They profile us. They’re watching what we seize.
“Sometimes it’s down to officers observing people while they collect their baggage . . . Do they look nervous? How observant are they about the place? We’re looking at body language. We’ve got good seizures from that sort of thing.
“For example, [a flight came in from] Amsterdam, and an officer at a carousel noticed there was a woman on one side and a man on the other communicating with each other without shouting across the carousel. They were stopped and searched, and they had three kilos of herbal cannabis.”
If customs officials suspect someone is carrying an illegal substance, the person is stopped and searched. The airport is testing a full-body scanner, which uses low-power X-rays to show any concealed objects. Similar technology has been controversial elsewhere, as the images they created were so detailed – amounting to what some opponents claimed was a virtual strip search – that passengers and regulators were alarmed by the potential for invasion of privacy. These “backscatter” scanners have now been removed from US airports, and the EU has banned them on health grounds.
The scanner at Dublin Airport creates less intrusive images: instead of showing a passenger’s naked body it shows only any concealed objects, highlighted on a generic outline of the passenger.
The airport also has an ion scanner that analyses swabs from a person’s clothing or baggage to determine whether it has been in contact with an illegal substance – and, if so, with what quantity.
The former drug-unit member says when somebody is suspected of concealing drugs internally, the person can be taken for X-rays and medical examinations. A special toilet allows officers to search deposits for pellets. “You have to try and figure out then do you take them for an X-ray, have a doctor examine them or speak to them yourself,” he says.
“Usually, unfortunately, a lot of these people are quite vulnerable, and they will get into an unmerciful panic once they come before the police. They’ll often tell you, ‘I have it inside me.’ ”
Once it has been established that somebody is carrying a substantial amount of drugs, the person is brought to an interview room and read his or her rights. Custody is then transferred to the drug unit. At this point the person can be held for up to seven days with the approval of a District Court judge. Then Garda must bring a charge.
The former drug-unit member says they would typically oppose bail for foreigners because of the flight risk. Like Michaella McCollum Connolly and Melissa Reid, “they would probably end up in jail, regardless of guilt or innocence, awaiting trial”, he says. They are also unlikely to meet the criteria of an address and independent surety to make bail. McDermott estimates they could be waiting up to two years before their case came to court.
If a mule ends up before a court in Ireland and, like McCollum Connolly and Reid, pleads duress, it carries little hope of success, according to McDermott. “Irish law says if you commit a crime where your will is overborne by imminent threat to your life, then that can be a full defence, which means you would be acquitted of the crime.
“But Irish courts have been very slow to allow it to be raised legally, because they realise, particularly in the world of drugs, it is a defence everybody can raise.
“The key word is ‘imminent’. While a person can say they are under threat, it’s hard to say it’s imminent if you’re walking through an airport, if you’ve taken flights, if you’ve had opportunities to speak to police and seek help. How do you show it’s imminent insofar as you were just about to be killed if you didn’t carry it out?”
But the former drug-unit member says judges have sometimes taken pity on people they have convicted by delaying sentencing for a few weeks, giving them the chance to flee the country.
McDermott says the practice “isn’t legally proper” but has been known to occur. “I’ve certainly heard of judges effectively telling someone, ‘If you leave the country I won’t imprison you.’ Judges have to be careful doing that, because you’re pushing the edges of what’s legally permissible.”