Orlando Tobon: 'Everyone deserves a decent burial'

Orlando Tobon has a mission: to identify the bodies of drug mules - and return them to their families. As a film about his work opens, Chris Sullivan meets a Colombian hero
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The Independent Culture

" If they paid for their mistake with their life, then why continue punishing them?" asks Orlando Tobon. The 57-year-old Colombian travel agent is known as "the undertaker of the mules" - he has spent 25 years repatriating the bodies of people who have died attempting to smuggle cocaine from Colombia to New York inside their stomachs.

" If they paid for their mistake with their life, then why continue punishing them?" asks Orlando Tobon. The 57-year-old Colombian travel agent is known as "the undertaker of the mules" - he has spent 25 years repatriating the bodies of people who have died attempting to smuggle cocaine from Colombia to New York inside their stomachs.

"These people deserve a decent funeral," says Tobon, in his heavy Colombian accent. "I started doing this a long time ago. My next-door neighbour died in a car crash and her sister asked me for help. She had only been in New York for a couple of months and couldn't speak English. We went down to the morgue to identify the body, and the girl at the morgue said that this girl was very lucky because at least she had someone to bury her."

In his small office in the borough of Queens, Tobon remembers how, that day, there had been three bodies in the morgue left unclaimed. "I asked why, and she said that because these people had died with drugs inside them - they were drug mules - maybe the family was scared to come forward and get them. Or maybe they came here with different names, so no one knew who they really were.

"I thought that I should help these people. So I called the police and Colombia, and after a lot of effort I found their families and told them what had happened. I collected the money from the community and sent the bodies back to Colombia to be given a decent burial."

Since then, Tobon has returned more than 400 bodies to Colombia to be buried. He estimates that, today, the Colombian drug barons could be sending as many as seven mules on every flight. Many of them are unknowingly risking their life and liberty trafficking the drugs for just a few thousand pounds. "It is hard to stop. The cartels pick very good people, who look nice and respectable and have no police record," Tobon says. "Often they have money troubles and are recruited to do a job they do not understand. They're told it's safe, and that if they get caught they only face being deported. They don't realise that they might die, or go to prison for 10, 20 years."

The mules board the flights literally full to bursting after swallowing packages of cocaine. They are then picked up at their destination, driven to a safe location and given laxatives to ease the passage of the drugs. Often, they don't survive the journey. "There are so many cases. Some are found dumped near the airport, dead in hotels, they are all different... But all the mules have one thing in common," Tobon says. "They are all very desperate and very poor. These aren't very bad criminal people, just ignorant people who are being used."

Until recently, Tobon had gone about his business in relative obscurity. But that has ended with the release of Josh Marston's new film, Maria Full of Grace, in which he plays himself. It tells the story of a young drug mule (played by the Oscar-nominated actress Catalina Sandino Moreno) who travels from Bogota to New York having swallowed 500 grams of cocaine tightly packed in the fingers of latex surgical gloves. "Marston sat in my office for days, and his film is very accurate. It's like many cases I have seen. I remember one when a girl died and the mafia opened her stomach with a knife and withdrew the drugs," Tobon murmurs. "Then they placed her body inside a plastic bag and set it on fire. The mafia are very bad people - all they care about is money."

When an unclaimed body of South American extraction lies unidentified in the morgue, the authorities almost always call Tobon. "It used to be very hard to discover the identity of the bodies. Now the Colombian and the US police really help me, using computers and fingerprinting to identify the bodies. Relatives in Colombia will call me when someone goes missing - sometimes they are right, sometimes they are wrong and the person they are looking for is still in Colombia."

Tobon's relationship with the New York police wasn't always so convivial. "At first they were very suspicious of me," he says with a smile. "I had problems with the police, and the FBI started to investigate me, searching my place at four in the morning, but I didn't care because what I was doing was a good thing: it was what I need to do and I was innocent. Eventually, they realised this, though, and thanked me for what I was doing. Now they give me all the help they can."

Tobon attributes his benevolence to his mother. "She liked to help people all the time, like crazy. I remember, one Christmas, she took the toy car she had given me as a gift and gave it to another boy because she felt he needed it more than me. I did not agree."

Tobon's mother died in the 1990 Avianca Airlines crash on Long Island as she returned from a trip to Colombia to deliver clothes she had collected for the poor. "She was an amazing woman," Tobon says, "and I hope she looks down and is proud of me."

After so many years, a few cases still stand out in Tobon's mind. He tells me the story of an 82-year-old woman from Bogota who, unable to care for her mentally ill son, was convinced by drug traffickers that one trip to New York as a drug mule would earn her enough cash to secure him a decent future. As she got into a cab at John F Kennedy airport, a pellet ruptured inside her and she died on the way to hospital.

"And then there was a mother and her 16-year-old son, who were both drug mules together on the same plane," Tobon sighs. "When they arrived in New York, a pellet burst in the boy's stomach on the way to a hotel. The mother was so scared of the police and the mafiosi that she left her son to die in the hotel room."

New York is not the only destination for the Colombian drug mules. Anjelica was arrested in London with two-and-a-half pounds of high-grade cocaine inside her. She was recently released after serving almost five years in Holloway prison in north London.

"The dealers can get a better price in London, so some traffickers prefer to target the UK, especially after American security tightened after September 11," says the 30-year-old mother. "I thought I could make some money to pay off a serious debt. I had no other option. That's how it almost always is. I met one girl in prison who did it to pay for her son's operation. She was caught and he subsequently died.

"The traffickers pick you out, sometimes on the street, and then they prepare you for the journey. You eat very light food for weeks, food that will clean you out, and also food that will line and strengthen the stomach wall. Sometimes they will use an endoscope to check the stomach for holes or ulcers, because you might carry as much as 600 grams, which when cut might be worth £20,000. Then you practise by swallowing grapes whole.

"Then, on the day, you might be given Chloraseptic to loosen and numb the throat, and then you swallow as many as 50 seven-gram bullets, as they are called. These are dipped in olive oil and lemon so you can swallow them easier, but it still takes as much as 10 hours to swallow them all. And you only worry about getting caught, when you could die at any moment. "

Despite tighter controls being introduced in Britain and the US, the drug-mule traffic shows no sign of abating. Tobon is as busy as ever. But he's encouraged by the fact that Maria Full of Grace has highlighted the dangers. "The film has been very successful in Colombia," he says. "It will change a lot of things. A 16-year-old Colombian boy called me to say thank you - he had been due to travel to New York as a mule, but watching the film the night before his due departure changed his mind. That made me very happy, as the film might have saved at least one life."

Tobon hopes it won't only be the mules who question their actions, but drug users as well. "People should think twice, or three times, about taking drugs," he says. "Cocaine causes so much pain. Not only does it cause the deaths of so many people, but also it puts money in the pockets of the Colombian mafiosi. The only solution to the problem would be if Americans and Europeans stop using drugs. There would be no demand, and then the Colombians couldn't sell it."

Tobon now faces the challenge of coping with his new-found fame. "The only problem I have now is that when I walk the street, people stop me and want a picture. I live three blocks from my office, and sometimes it takes me one hour to get to work."

'Maria Full of Grace' opens in cinemas tomorrow