This article originally appeared on VICE Netherlands
A few years ago, one of my cousins spent some time working as a drug mule. She's flown from Curacao to Europe with her stomach packed full of plastic-wrapped cocaine, transported briefcases full of drugs from Jamaica, and only really stopped because she got caught doing it. I wanted to know more about her history of illegal drug trafficking, so I went to her house for a chat.
After letting me in, Sharon* sat down on her black leather couch and told me she couldn't understand why I was so interested in her story. "I don't get what's so special about swallowing balloons filled with coke," she said. Sharon, who is half-Dutch and half-Surinamese, grew up in a very small town, but started hanging out on the streets of Amsterdam when she was 13 years old. "There were only Dutch people where I was living. I hated it. I wanted to hang out with people who looked like me."
She found some friends in the suburbs of the capital, who introduced her to pastimes like crack cocaine, and taught her how to rob people. Her worried mother desperately tried to coax her out of crime, but without much success. "She gave me a choice: either I move back to Suriname or go to a very strict boarding school. I chose the boarding school, because I knew I was in for a right kicking in Suriname," she said.
Eventually she got expelled, spent some time in juvenile detention and, finally, ended up in adult prison "for robberies and stuff like that." In 2001, after being released, Sharon traveled to the small Caribbean island of Curacao because she'd heard that smuggling cocaine through there was easy. The plan was for her to pick up a suitcase filled with coke just past customs, and then turn around and immediately fly back to the Netherlands with it.
"The people I was supposed to meet didn't have their shit together, so I decided not to do it and just stay there for a while instead," she told me. In Curacao, she says, people would constantly ask her if she wanted to smuggle coke for them. Obviously, Sharon was an easy target: she wasn't from Curacao and had no family there. "A lot of people would ask you to smuggle for them if they knew you were Dutch. But I always told them that I wouldn't. Well, until I ran into a friend I knew from back home," Sharon shrugged. "She asked me if I would smuggle some stuff for her and I decided to do it. Everybody did it back then. Every flight would have at least ten or 20 people with drugs on it. Even little old grandmas were selling drugs in Curacao."
To test things out, Sharon swallowed a single cocaine-filled balloon. It went down without a problem, so she ingested another 70 or so. Each balloon contained ten grams of coke, and she was being paid 1,000 guilders (about $550) per hundred grams. The cocaine was packed in plastic, then wrapped in a layer of latex (from a glove), taped shut with a special kind of packaging tape, and then wrapped in an additional layer of plastic and latex. "It was really well packaged. Some people had a hard time getting it down, though. They'd practice with a piece of carrot or something like that," she laughed.
Unfortunately, coke balloons weren't always that well packaged. A friend of Sharon's died at the age of 19 when a balloon burst in her stomach. "That was pure coke, though. I only swallowed boiled coke, which won't kill you. Or, at least, that's what they told me," she said. "I've seen a lot of drug mules get dropped off at A&E [the emergency room], actually."
Before swallowing, Sharon would check each and every balloon by dropping it in a bucket of water. If it sank to the bottom, it needed to be repackaged. "It's not that complicated," she assured me. Smuggling drugs seemed like a good option for Sharon—she wanted to go back to Holland, and this seemed like an easy way to get a free plane ticket.
Sharon wasn't even nervous the first time she did it, she told me. She just stood patiently in line at the airport with those she knew had their stomachs full, and then breezed through customs. "They pay a lot of attention to people that don't eat. I guess it's because they think you can't eat if you have loads of cocaine in your stomach. But I just ate like I always do," she told me. "It's also important that you don't look scared or act like you're nervous. They asked a bunch of questions, but I just answered like I normally would. I even asked them if they wanted me to get undressed or perform any additional checks or whatever."
Unlike others in her situation, Sharon never had to pass the balloons mid-flight. When that happens, the mules have to wash and swallow them again. "It gives you pretty bad breath," she told me.
After she landed, Sharon would expel the cocaine balloons with the help of a special laxative chocolate. Once out, you'd have to hand them off to the dealers right away. "If you didn't, you'd be in big trouble"—not that Sharon had ever experienced any trouble with the higher-ups herself. The closest she got to disaster was hearing about an 18-year-old guy who got the balloons stuck in his intestinal tract. His stomach had to be cut open by a surgeon, who later delivered the stash—but not the kid—to the police. Even in those situations, doctors have to uphold the hippocratic oath.
She recalled another time when she had to smuggle a suitcase full of drugs from Jamaica. "It was pretty easy," she said. "They had bribed the people at customs. In Holland, another courier took my suitcase and we walked past customs together. I didn't really have to do anything." Because Jamaica isn't considered to be a "high risk country," fewer flights are checked. The trip landed her £2,700 [$4,100].
Today, Sharon is on welfare, which is a far cry from the money she used to be earning. Every time a smuggle was successful, she'd reward herself with clothing.
Of course, perhaps unexpectedly, there was eventually a fuck-up, and Sharon got caught in 2007. That time, instead of swallowing the drugs, she had put them in a hollow dildo and inserted it into her vagina. "I thought they were only going to X-ray my stomach, but they also took pictures down there," she said, pointing to her crotch. "They don't take you to jail if you're carrying less than three kilos, though. All you have to do is talk to the cops and then you can leave. I never even saw the inside of a police station."
Sharon was allowed to go back to the Netherlands right away. "I felt sorry for my mother, because she had to buy the plane ticket," she told me. As a punishment, the authorities cut her passport in half, and she was banned from flying for a year. Her mother saw an opportunity to change Sharon's ways and brought her back home.
Sharon misses the old days, but definitely not the smuggling. She'd heard that it was getting far more difficult. "Flights from Colombia and Curacao are being checked more thoroughly now," she said. "I don't know too much about the latest methods. I certainly won't be doing it again." You could tell she was being sincere.
"What else do you want to know? I told you it's not that interesting," she yawned as we ended our conversation.
*Name has been changed to protect anonymity.