Harry* is not the kind of person who springs to mind when you picture a drug mule. For starters, he’s a mild-mannered 21-year-old middle class student from a loving family in England’s west country. His childhood was spent building dens in the woods.
However, after an escalating cocaine habit and meeting a gang of Gambian smugglers in Italy, he ended up smuggling cannabis and MDMA across the borders of eight different European countries, from a safe-house in Spain, via plane and ferry into France, Italy, Switzerland, eastern Europe and Scandinavia, before being caught with 12 kilos of weed and spending and nearly six months inside a Polish prison. Harry’s now back in the UK, having checked out of the drug world, he says, for good.
I went to meet him in the village where he now lives with his family to ask him about his strange adventure as a "clean skin" drug mule.
How did it all start?
I went on holiday to Rome last year when I was 20 and I ended up getting stranded there with no money and no way of getting home. This was because I had this all-encompassing cocaine problem, which was expensive, so I spent my return fare.
I was sleeping outside, stealing food from the market like Oliver Twist. Then I met this West African guy at a bar and we became friends. I explained my situation and he asked if I wanted to stay with him. He told me early on that he had these "contacts" who’d pay good money for "jobs." He didn’t explicitly talk about the drugs, but it was obvious.
At first, I was only staying there because it was better than sleeping outside, but then the more I thought about it the more I wanted to do one of his jobs, earn some money and get home.
What happened after you accepted the job?
Well the job wasn’t in Rome, it was in Spain, and consisted of taking 2kg of cannabis from Spain to Sweden, via Latvia. [There are fewer] checks in Eastern European airports so it’s easier that way, and I assume the best way through most security-tight borders is by sea.
So, the first thing that happened was I got put on a plane to Northern Spain and driven to the house where the drugs were packaged. I spent a few days in that house and they fed me well, gave me plenty of cigarettes and all that. I was happy.
I met another young guy who was running drugs, he was 23 from Scotland. He was a lot like me, he had a drug problem, and he’d done a few runs before. He told me it was easy enough, so that was reassuring. To be honest, at that point, I was starting to find the whole thing tremendously exciting.
How much were you being paid?
I was promised €1,000 ($1,112) per kilo, that was €2,000 ($2,225). I think the mark-up from Spain to Sweden is quite large; they buy it for around €500 ($556), and it sells for something around €4,000 ($4,450).
Tell me about the smuggling process.
It starts with the packaging, which takes all night. The drugs are vacuum packed into these bags wrapped with cling film and pressed right down. Then there was this guy making thick coffee, he’d make the coffee and stir it and add more grounds to the mixture until it was this syrupy paste. Then they’d smother the drug package in the coffee mixture, wrap it up with more cling-film and repeat. This is all to keep the dogs off track. Then it was put in one of those X-ray proof bags.
They give me a little burner phone, which has all the information I needed on it. Then they dropped me at the airport. The whole thing was actually less stressful than you’d think. You just check in your suitcase with the drugs in it and get on the flight. There was no moment of “oh my god I’m crossing the scanner” or any of that. It’s like taking any other flight. I probably should’ve been scared, but I wasn’t, because I felt so removed from what I was doing, it was so alien, it just never felt real. When I got out at the airport that first time at Riga in Estonia, I was met by my handler.
What was he like?
He’s there to make sure you don’t freak out and tell the police or run off with the drugs. They only send one of these guys the first couple of times, after that they start to trust you enough to do it alone.
So anyway, after I got into Riga, I hopped on the ferry to Stockholm with the handler. Someone met us in Stockholm, I got the €2,000 in cash off this guy I meet in a hotel and that’s that. It all seemed way too easy. There’s a real high to it as well. I think that was probably a part of why I kept doing it.
When did you decide to do it again?
I came back to the UK and started buying cocaine again. I was doing over two grams per day. That’s why I wanted to go out smuggling again. It’s that simple. They contacted me on my burner phone and we arranged the trips. I didn’t see it as a big deal, I was taking so much coke at the time, it was a budgetary godsend really. I’d tricked myself into thinking that I’d never have to work. I’m quite lazy, so I’ll always be more attracted to easy, risky money than to hard-earned risk-free money.
How many times did you end up smuggling?
Seven or eight times, over a six month period. The size of the jobs got gradually bigger as they began to trust me: from 2kg to 7kg to 12kg. It was a lot of fun. I’d stay in nice hotels all around Europe, however briefly. I was given pocket money on top of the fees for the jobs. They’d give me cash to pay for hotels, taxis and nights out.
What you have to realise about middle-class white mules, sometimes called "clean skins" because we have no criminal record and look innocent, is that we are a real asset for these guys. No one searches us, police don’t profile us, and we’re rare. They treat us like a king because they want to keep us around, we don’t feel disposable as people might imagine we do.
I think I even ended up berating them for being incompetent sometimes, and they’d be really apologetic—like when a drop-off was too public or something like that.
How big was the operation you were a part of?
It’s really hard to say, and I don’t want to talk too much about it. I only ever interacted with those directly above me and many of them used these fake street names. It was run by Gambian guys. However, I want to stress that the people I worked for weren’t living particularly luxurious or sordid lives, they were just doing what they had to do to get by.
And the other mules you met?
They came from all over Europe, almost exclusively white, aged 19-25. Most of them were drug addicts, like I was, but had built up debts with some scary people. So they either used these jobs as a way of earning fast money, or to disappear out of the country. That was another part of the whole paradigm.
How many different countries did you take drugs through?
France, Spain, Italy, Netherlands, Sweden, Latvia, Finland, Iceland, Estonia. I think there were more.
Was it always marijuana?
There were other jobs going, I’d get updates on the burner phone, taking heroin, cocaine, MDMA. They offered more money. But I turned those down because it was too risky. Apart from once when I shifted a load of MDMA on a job to Sweden, which I got paid more for. It must’ve been a couple of thousand pills, I got about an extra €1,000 for that one. Again, it should’ve felt scarier than it did. But I was very good at distancing myself from what I was doing.
So how did you eventually get caught?
I have no idea exactly how exactly. It happened at Warsaw airport. When I went to pick up my bag from reclaim it wasn’t there. Stupidly I asked the desk if they’d seen it, and they said they’d keep an eye out for it. I should’ve kept quiet and just left, but there we go.
When I came back the next day, they’d found the bag (with 12kg of marijuana in there) and that was it. I guess I didn’t think they’d look inside.
So how long were you in prison for?
I was given a five year suspended sentence, which is really lenient by most judicial standards, and released after 150 days in jail on remand. I was given a state lawyer who was very reassuring and had worked on similar cases before. It was my first offense so that’s why it was a light sentence.
All I could think about, when I got busted, was how I could hide the whole thing from my parents. I was thinking, maybe if I got back in a couple of weeks or a month they’d never know I was gone. But it didn’t work out that way.
Eventually, one of my friends sounded the alarm to my family that I was missing and they got the police involved. Not that they really did much—I think they stopped looking for me after they found out I had a drug problem. After about two weeks the prison allowed me to contact my mum. Mum’s first reaction was just that she was glad I was alive, she had no idea where I’d got to. Both my parents ended up being much more sympathetic than I thought they’d be.
Did you find being in a foreign prison tough?
I was essentially just thrown in solitary, because after they took one look at me they must’ve known I wouldn’t last a day with the really serious criminals. It was nice of them, and I don’t think it’s what would’ve happened in a British or American prison. Occasionally I’d have a cell mate, but they were fine, just kept themselves to themselves.
Prison itself is just extremely monotonous. You live in this little cell, about the size of a large bathroom, and you’re allowed outside for an hour per day, but ‘outside’ is just a little cage with an open roof—just big enough for you to pace around.
I ended up reading a lot, I read the entire works of Shakespeare which my mum had sent me. And I made paint brushes out of my hair, which I fixed together with condensed milk from the lunch tray.
If you could go back in time, would you change things?
Well I’m off drugs now, which is good. But, no, I think I needed everything to go wrong. I had this ridiculous view of life that money and opportunity would just fall into my lap. The whole thing taught me that actions have consequences. Although I really hurt my friends and family, and that upsets me. I wish I could’ve spared them the worry.
So what do you do for a living these days?
I’ve got a part-time job in a second-hand shop. Keeping it easy while I come to terms with my experiences over the last year. It’s very twee. I like it very much.
*Names have been changed to protect identity
This article originally appeared on VICE US.