QUITO, Ecuador (WOMENSENEWS)–Charmaine Graham said that in her other life, outside this Quito jail for women, she owns a market stall and sells clothes in Saint Catherine, Jamaica.
But now the 45-year-old single mother faces criminal charges for "muling," the street term for individuals who transport drugs with little-to-no involvement in the business side of the trade.
Graham says she traveled in January to Quito–a commercial outlet for textiles produced in Colombia, Peru and Ecuador–with the intention of buying cheap merchandise. She was arrested at the international airport on her way home that same month, wearing undergarments that were not hers.
On her last night in Quito, two men in dark leather jackets knocked on her hotel room door. They knew her name but she says she did not know them. One of the men handed her a black corset and told her to wear it and take it to Peter back in Jamaica. She says she didn’t know this "Peter," but they came back three times to make sure she had the corset on.
"The corset was black and was heavy," Graham said. "I had an idea. But they tailed my taxi to the airport. I was very scared."
The corset carried 1.6 kilograms of alkaloids, a chemical molecule used in the production of cocaine.
Two other non-Ecuadorean women were also arrested in January at the international airport and are also now in Quito’s Center for the Social Rehabilitation of Women, which functions as a jail and detention point. All of them claim innocence.
One of them, Renata Ferencova, got caught at the airport on Feb. 8 with a backpack concealing two kilos of cocaine. She says she found the backpack abandoned under her table at a restaurant and that she picked it up because she liked it for her daughter. The third, Espinola Britez Mercedes Olinda, says she was tricked into carrying shampoo containers filled with cocaine base.
Many Ways to Get Caught
After studying women’s involvement in the illicit Andean drug trade for years, Andreina Torres, a social scientist based in Quito, says that a growing number of women are being tricked into or recruited as drug couriers.
Delivery techniques, meanwhile, are being refined all the time.
"Mulas on commercial flights typically ingest one to two kilos of cocaine or heroine in capsules," said Torres, a researcher at Ecuador’s Flacso University, an international graduate school devoted to social sciences that was founded by UNESCO. "Some turn to their cavities. Others hide the drug in their luggage. We now have cases of surgical insertions beneath the skin to conceal the drugs."
For women who ingest the drugs, a punctured capsule could mean death by poisoning.
Despite ongoing international crackdown pacts on coca cultivation in the Andean countries of Bolivia, Colombia and Peru, production in this region grew by an average of 16 percent in 2007, according to the United Nations’ annual world drug report in 2008.
With Ecuador providing an increasingly active transportation hub, the United States in 2005 agreed to invest $15.7 million in Ecuador’s security on condition that Ecuador ramp up capture and prosecution of drug traffickers by 12 percent relative to 2004.
While that deal may have contributed towards the latest spur in arrests of women as drug couriers, Torres sees a multi-decade trend that has changed the face of the female prison population in the region.
Jailed Women Change Profile
"You see a growing presence of mulas in the jails," said Torres. "In South America, particularly the Andean region, women’s criminalization is primarily from drugs. You’ve seen a complete change in the profile of women behind bars. Before, they were mostly there for cases of robbery or family violence. Now it is drugs."
The overall female prisoner population of Ecuador and the entire Andean region has grown in tandem with women’s involvement in drugs. Between 2001 and 2004 female detainees in Quito doubled to 1129 from 581. By 2005, a third of the women in the prison were accused of muling, with a growing share of them coming from foreign countries.
In this women’s jail of Quito, 85 percent of inmates are being detained for drug-related charges of consuming, street peddling and muling.
Torres’ research suggests that the spike in female muling could be an unintended side-effect of international antiterrorist measures following Sept. 11. Because those efforts focused on men, they may have driven up demand for female couriers, who are more likely to evade notice by immigration officials.
Drug Industry Changed Shape
Even before 2001, Torres’ research found that shifts in the illegal drug business were driving up women’s active involvement.
In the 1980s and 1990s the dismantling of major drug cartels was followed by a rise in smaller drug-dealing networks. In turn, these organizations created the conditions for multiple, relatively minor transactions in which women could play the part of couriers, displaceable and replaceable.
Women with low-education and income, stay-at-home moms, could take on small roles, with large risks, and see quick returns, Torres research finds. The majority of the women she interviewed became involved as a result of romantic relationships with male drug dealers and traffickers.
While women are most visible for their work as mules–one of the lowest status and most vulnerable positions in drug trafficking–women have also attained high-ranking status in the region’s cartels.
In 2008, a U.S. Treasury Department listing showed women holding a quarter to a third of positions of responsibility in the leadership of Colombian drug, money laundering and small arms cartels.
Dominique Soguel is Women’s eNews Arabic editor.