What It's Like to Be a Female Drug Mule Serving Time in Prison
Sylvia R. was a single mom from Slovakia who was caught smuggling cocaine out of Argentina. She's now one of the thousands of women who are languishing in Latin American jails for drug trafficking.
Photo by Helen Rushbrook via Stocksy
A few years ago in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Sylvia R. wrapped some cocaine capsules in latex and slid them between her tits and her bodice. She secured the package to her body with some duct tape and got silently into a taxi heading for Ezeiza International Airport. Her aim was to return to her home country, Slovakia. If everything went well, she'd be paid enough cash to buy some furniture, clothes, and food for her seven-year old son, whom she was raising alone.
When she tried to pass the checkpoint, she was stopped and searched by the airport security police. They found the little white capsules taped to her breasts. They later found out that the 27-year old Slovakian was hiding another kilo inside her stomach.
Sylvia has been in prison for a year and a half now. Together with 72 other female inmates, she lives in Unit 31 of the Federal Detention Center for Women. She was sentenced to four years in prison; when she has served half the conviction she will be able to see her son again.
Women like Sylvia have lots of names: mulas ("mules" in Spanish), envases ("containers"), valijeras (for those who hide drugs in their luggage), vagineras (for those who hide the dope inside their vaginas), correos humanos ("human couriers"), camellos ("dealers"), or capsuleras ("capsule-bearers").
They're all women who put their bodies at the service of drug trafficking as a means of survival. Many end up being imprisoned, or worse. Those who carry capsules inside their stomach, bowels, anuses, and vaginas are called ingestadas ("intakers"). Doctors describe them as ticking time bombs: If a capsule cracks open, their chances of survival are very low.
Those who tape the packages to their bodies—like Sylvia did—are envainadas ("wrapped"). Most of them are foreigners, single mothers, or poor and undereducated women. In Argentina, Brazil, and Costa Rica, they account for more than 60 percent of the female prison population.
"I needed some cash because my son had to attend school," Sylvia explains from prison. She shares a cell with another four English-speaking foreign women. "Now he asks me on the phone: 'Why don't you wanna come back home, Mom? Do you have another baby, Mom?'" Sylvia's Spanish is very basic, and she learnt it in jail. An English-speaking Colombian inmate taught her the few first words, and then she took a basic Spanish course.
Sylvia had never been in prison before, and learning the language came with learning the tumbera ("prison") culture. She soon understood that lawyers sometimes chamuyan ("cheat"), and that some inmates are more cachivaches ("vile") than others and are always looking for trouble. "Some women get pissed off by the slightest thing. Cohabitation is hard, because we're all from different countries, and we all have different traditions. There used to be a girl around here who thought she was the leader. But I'm not the kind of person who gets scared."
The story of this young Slovakian woman is not unique. More than half of the women who are arrested in Argentina and are currently serving sentences in the Federal Penitentiary Service are there for violating narcotics law. In 2015, there were 2,989 female prisoners compared to 65,418 men, according to the latest statistics published by the country's Ministry of Justice and Human Rights and the National Office of Crime Policy.
In the last few years, this figure has increased disproporationately compared to male convicts. More women are arrested for crimes related to drug trafficking than men. The female prison population in Latin America is growing at an alarming fast pace; along with Asia, the rate of imprisonment here is higher than any other region of the world. According to the Institute for Criminal Policy Research, the female prison population in Latin America has increased 51.6 percent between 2000 and 2015, as compared to 20 percent for men. In Argentina, the number of women imprisoned for drug crimes increased 271 per cent between 1989 and 2008, and 290 per cent in Brazil between 2005 and 2013.
"There's some kind of legal momentum," explains Maria Santos, the gender and sexuality diversity team coordinator at the National Prison Attorney Office. "The incarceration rate increases, but true drug traffickers aren't investigated at all. After those mules are busted at the airports or country borders, there's a lot of people coming behind them with huge amounts of drugs. We find cases of girls whose passports are taken away, and others whose families are threatened. Many of them are misled through the internet."
In the shady world of drug trafficking, gendered hierarchies still rule the roost. Mules are often said to be the weakest link in the drug trafficking chain. However, Laurana Malacalza, the coordinator of the Observatorio de Violencia de Género for Buenos Aires province, doesn't agree: "They aren't even a part of the criminal organization. They're just fuses, not a link in the chain."
Silvia Edith Martínez is the official public defender at the Public Defender's Office (DGN), and one of the researchers for the report Mujeres en Prisión en Argentina: Causas, Condiciones y Consecuencias ("Women Imprisoned in Argentina: Causes, Conditions and Consequences") published by the DGN with the Avon Global Center for Women and Justice and the Chicago University Law School's International Law on Human Rights Clinic.
Inside the trafficking chains, women are at the most vulnerable positions. They're easier to bust; they are cannon fodder.
"These women in detention are not big drug traffickers," she explains. "They carry very small quantities of drugs. Inside the trafficking chains, women are in the most vulnerable positions. They're easier to bust; they are cannon fodder. And this is because drug trafficking networks have the same hierarchies as human trafficking networks: Men occupy the highest levels, and women are exposed to the judicial system."
In another report published by the human rights organization Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), several experts from different countries consider the consequences of imprisoning female drug mules: "Even though they bear the brunt of punitive policies, these women are seldom a true threat for society. Their imprisonment does little or nothing to dismantle illegal drug markets and to improve public security."
The report goes on to propose measures to reform drug policy and reduce the number of female prisoners. It suggests that punishment for low-level drug violations should be meted out with alternatives to jail; penalties should be proportional to the crimes committed. "We need different prison policies for the different prison populations. There have been improvements, people are more focused on this issue," Martínez says. "However, women have become invisible all these years inside the penitentiary system."
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Social exclusion, poverty, and gender-based violence are the three main reasons why women get involved in drug trafficking. Most of the women who get busted are uneducated, poor, and have people dependent on their care: children, teenagers, and older or disabled relatives. These circumstances inevitably worsen with their incarceration, both for them and their families. Once they are released, their criminal records often serve as a stumbling block to getting a job.
The situation is even worse for foreign women. "They suffer from isolation for a long time, and they have no access to home detention," says Santos from the National Prison Attorney Office. According to official 2011 data, nine out of ten foreign women incarcerated in Argentina for drug related crimes on a federal level were busted for being drug. Just like Sylvia, 96 percent of them were on their first offence and had never been in trouble with the law before.
When the envelope is torn apart, chances of death are immediate. That's why we try to work as fast as possible.
Language is also an obstacle for these women. When her trial began, Sylvia couldn't speak a word of Spanish. "I want my embassy to bring a translator," she told the judicial officials who were handling her case. She managed to get a translator she spoke with in English, but she believed it would be much fairer to have a Slovakian translator. Eventually, she got one through her embassy. As she puts it now: "I'm in prison, but I still have my rights."
Women in prison face a "double punishment," according to Punición y Maternidad ("Punishment and Maternity"), a report by the Public Defender's Office. For those who are already mothers, destroying the bond between them and their children is an advanced penalty for those awaiting trial in preventive detention, and acts as an added punishment for those who are then convicted. It is a punishment that goes beyond them to affect their own sons and daughters.
The only thing Sylvia wants is to be with her son again, who is now being taken care of by his grandmother, a woman who also grew up on her own and already has other children in her care. They live together with Sylvia's family in a village near Bratislava. "My son needs his mommy because he has no father," Sylvia says.
Before they go to the penitentiary, mules who are arrested at Ezeiza International Airport are taken to the Hospital Interzonal de Ezeiza Dr. Alberto Antranik Eurnekian in order to expel the capsules. The medical center has a special unit to treat these patients, and its Intensive Care Unit is the only one in the country that specializes in doing so.
Towards the end of the 90s, Dr Graciela Sorrentino turned the hospital into a pioneering institution for this kind of practice. Nowadays, her position is occupied by Dr Luis Taco Zea. "This way of trafficking used to be unknown," he explains. "The hospital, due to its proximity to the Ezeiza airport, started to treat the first cases of this particular segment of population in the country."
When a patient comes through the hospital doors, the first thing doctors do is take a radiograph in order to find out the number and location of the smuggled capsules. (So far, their record is finding 298 capsules inside one person.) The capsules are made of tied condoms containing cocaine dissolved in ethyl alcohol and levamisol, an anti-parasite medication. Generally, mules carry an average of 100 capsules of 10 to 11 grams of cocaine each, the equivalent of a whole kilo. In monetary terms, mules usually end up carrying an average of $400,000 in drugs for the European market.
The 'evacuation' is carefully managed at the hospital. "It's a very delicate task, [it's] a very intensive procedure using very strong laxatives. We try not to get to the point where we need a surgical procedure," Dr Taco Zea says. In Sylvia's case, she needed two days to expel the capsules she had eaten.
Doctors work with the threat of their patients' imminent death looming over them. "When the envelope is torn apart, chances of death are immediate. That's why we try to work as fast as possible," says Dr Taco Zea. When the evacuation is over, doctors discharge the capsuleras from the hospital, who go from being patients to detainees in federal prison.
The number of capsuleros who are admitted to the hospital vary. Most of them are middle-aged males, but the hospital has also seen pregnant women acting as drug mules. (Traffickers see them as less likely to arouse suspicion.) The case that shocked Dr Taco Zeca the most was that of a 19-year old South African girl who had never travelled overseas. In hospital, all she wanted to do was talk to her family. "They've no idea of the physical and legal risks they are exposed to. They're human ticking time bombs," the doctor says.
Back at the Federal Detention Center for Women, Sylvia tells me: "I want to go back to my home country and use everything I've learnt here." She's not slacking off while she serves her sentence. Instead, she's obtained a series of diplomas that "luckily, don't have any seal from the jail on them." Nail technician training, Spanish lessons, baking... She even attends a workshop where she learns how to train guide dogs, teaching the animals how to fetch objects and open doors. Every morning, she works in the penitentiary bakery, and tries to study in her spare time—an opportunity she didn't have in her home country when she was free woman.
Sylvia knows something for certain: She won't be a capsulera ever again.