The agonising death of a drug ‘swallower’ on board a flight from Lisbon to Dublin highlights one of the more disturbing methods used by traffickers to smuggle narcotics by air.
Gardaí and customs officers say that many of those used in this fashion are typically “at the bottom of the ladder”, who agree, or are sometimes forced, to ingest and smuggle drugs as a “last resort” to earn money or repay a debt.
Sources said it is “very dangerous” for the person, given the risk of one of the ingested pellets bursting.
The scale of the trade has fluctuated over the years, but, according to domestic and international experts, remains a standard method of smuggling by air.
A Europol report said swallowers, also known as ‘body packers’, are regularly used by traffickers, who frequently apply the ‘shotgun approach’.
This involves sending a number of swallowers on one flight and calculating that, if customs catch one passenger, another two or three will get through undetected.
Cocaine is primarily the drug smuggled in this way — including, in recent years, liquid cocaine — with other cases including cannabis and heroin.
“The bulk of swallowers detected by Revenue are engaged, in the main, in cocaine smuggling,” said a Revenue spokeswoman.
“In more recent times we have seen swallowers engaging also in cannabis smuggling. In the past, we have had swallowers with heroin.”
She said that the volumes ingested were generally in the region of 1kg.
It is understood that the 24-year-old Brazilian man who died on board the Aer Lingus flight on Sunday had ingested 800g of suspected cocaine, contained in 80 pellets.
Gardaí said the capsules can contain 80% to 90% pure cocaine. A kilogramme of cocaine on the street in Ireland is valued at €70,000.
However, cocaine of such high purity would be cut some four times.
The Revenue spokeswoman said swallowers were “in the main, West African or South American”, but that European and Irish nationals have also been detected.
The capsules, often the size of a thick cocktail sausage, or bigger, are made with multi-layered condoms.
Ingesting so many capsules is a painful and lengthy process. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime says that drug mules are sometimes given a soup laced with drugs to numb their throats.
It said mules are given medication to inhibit bowel movement during the flight, or flights.
When they land the mules are often just given a phone number to ring. Gardaí say they might be paid small amounts, in the region of €2,000 plus expenses. On arrival, they are given laxatives to retrieve the capsules.
Not many swallowers have been detected this year and just one recorded in 2014, when a 64-year-old Bolivian man was found with 39 packages, containing 1.64kg of liquid cocaine, inside him, worth €115,000. He was coming in off a flight from Rio de Janeiro.
There were at least six incidents in 2013, three involving flights from Brazil and one from Argentina. One of them was Irish and another British. Two cases involved liquid cocaine. One case, at Cork Airport, involved ingested cannabis.
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