Drug smuggling: the ultimate inside stories: Rob Stepney explains how customs officers catch travellers who carry death in their bodies

DRUG smugglers go to extraordinary lengths to bring heroin and cocaine into the country. Customs officers, aided by doctors, resort to equally extraordinary techniques to catch them.

Last week a woman died in hospital after packages of drugs, thought to be cocaine, burst inside her, causing a massive overdose. Clara Ayemenre, a Nigerian, collapsed at Heathrow's Terminal 3 before reaching customs. Surgeons at Ashford Hospital in west London who operated on her found 84 packages of the drug in her stomach.

Other couriers are luckier. Although being caught means they face punishment, medical techniques usually mean their contraband is discovered and removed before it kills them.

Customs officers have the power to detain, for an initial period of 96 hours, anyone they suspect of carrying drugs internally. Of all the messy jobs in the world, taking suspected drug 'swallowers' to the lavatory and then sifting through their faeces to find small packets of swallowed heroin and cocaine must be one of the least appealing. But it is a daily task for the customs and medical officers who work in the custody suites at Heathrow.

In the days of the Portaloo and the plastic bag, the work was really unsavoury; it involved a spatula, colander and perfumed face mask. Now the 'throne room' is all stainless steel, perspex and transparent plumbing. The washing down of drug packages takes place in a sealed sluice, from which only the contraband emerges to be submitted for analysis.

The number of swallowed drug packages recovered is usually between 80 and 150. The drugs are wrapped in condoms, balloons or cling-film, forming neat packages about the size of a large grape, and swallowed with syrup to make them more palatable. Couriers take a constipating agent before they embark and tend not to eat during the flight.

Apart from the damage their trade does to the health of others, smugglers who use their bodies as a vehicle for drugs put their own lives on the line. If a package of heroin comes open in transit, the chance of death is high. When a detainee passes an empty condom, he is rushed to hospital. It may just be the outer wrapping of several layers, but it may equally well be the first sign of a medical emergency.

Another risk is of intestinal obstruction caused by packets jamming together in the gut, so any sign of abdominal pain must be taken very seriously. Laxatives are unwise in this situation, since increasing the fluid content of the faeces could lead packages to swell and burst. The surgical removal of swallowed drugs from detainees at Heathrow is required two or three times a year, and

hospitals in Uxbridge and Ashford are well acquainted with the

problem.

'Stuffers', as opposed to 'swallowers', will use any orifice available. The vagina in particular proves commodious, especially in women who have had several children; a photograph in one case record shows a package the dimensions of a decent-sized marrow that was carried into the country this way.

Having stopped a passenger on suspicion, customs officers must look for evidence. A strip search - which detainees can refuse until their appeal is heard by either a senior customs officer or a magistrate - will only reveal what is visible on the naked body. And while grease around the anus or a protruding string clearly give the game away, the suspect can still refuse an intimate body search.

If the detainee does agree to a medical examination of body orifices, the fingers of the examining doctor may be able to detect vaginal packages, or those concealed in the rectum. One of Heathrow customs' two medical assistants has earned the nickname 'Goldfinger' because of his expertise.

When it comes to the 'swallowers', X-rays provide useful information: packages in the gastrointestinal tract show up because of air trapped within the wrapping. The British Medical Journal once published a paper describing this technique of detection under the title 'An Unusual Case of Pot Belly'. But women typically plead pregnancy as a means of avoiding X-rays, and men are also within their rights in refusing to submit to this examination.

All swallowed packages leak, however tightly they are tied, and the drug is absorbed into the bloodstream to be excreted by the kidneys. One of the most useful medical tools of the investigators' trade is a sophisticated laboratory device that detects trace quantities of drugs in urine.

Some passengers test positive because of drugs they have taken for legitimate medical reasons, and they must be carefully excluded. Others may have taken illegal drugs, but before embarkation, and that cannot be held against them. But a drug level in urine that increases over the hours after arrival is good evidence that packages are concealed internally. Such evidence is sufficient for suspects to be taken before magistrates and remanded back into customs' custody for an extended period of detention.

If all possible searches have failed or been refused, it is a waiting game, as one medical officer recalls: 'A suspect was remanded on the evidence of a positive urine test and my statement saying I had felt three packages in the rectum. But over the next 48 hours the detainee refused to eat or drink, and nothing was passed. At the second court attendance, the magistrate said he had no case to answer and he was released. But shortly afterwards customs re-arrested the man. Over the next day, he passed 37 drug packages.'

The longest time officers have waited for a suspect to deliver is 19 days, a performance that would put the most anal retentive personality to shame.

A question customs officers are always asked is how they decide whom to stop in the first place. The origin of a flight certainly attracts attention: West Africa, Pakistan and Colombia are obvious sources of drugs. Over a recent six-month period, half of the 149 Heathrow suspects who appeared before Uxbridge magistrates were accused of cocaine smuggling.

Almost 10 per cent of them were Colombians.

Nevertheless, the majority of defendants were British; and for these people, the likelihood of being stopped is often determined as much by the way they leave the country as by how they enter it. A suitcase containing condoms in unusually large quantities excites suspicion. So, too, do large amounts of dental floss, since it is used to tie drug packages. Other suspects are earmarked for detention when they return because of intelligence gathered in this

country.

There is said to be a particular way of walking that comes from having a rectum full of drugs, but an officer I spoke to thought that was not a significant factor.

Neither did he regard profuse sweating and agitation as a good guide.

It certainly cannot be that the traffickers look guilty, since we all do. 'I don't like going through customs myself,' he said.

(Photograph omitted)

Arts and Entertainment
Joe Cocker performing on the Stravinski hall stage during the Montreux Jazz Festival, in Montreux, Switzerland in 2002
musicHe 'turned my song into an anthem', says former Beatle
News
Clarke Carlisle
sport
Sport
footballStoke City vs Chelsea match report
Arts and Entertainment
David Hasselhof in Peter Pan
theatreThe US stars who've taken to UK panto, from Hasselhoff to Hall
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
Approaching sale shopping in a smart way means that you’ll get the most out of your money
life + styleSales shopping tips and tricks from the experts
News
newsIt was due to be auctioned off for charity
Life and Style
A still from a scene cut from The Interview showing North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's death.
tech
Environment
Sir David Attenborough
environment... as well as a plant and a spider
Voices
'That's the legal bit done. Now on to the ceremony!'
voicesThe fight for marriage equality isn't over yet, says Siobhan Fenton
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Austen Lloyd: Regulatory / Compliance / Exeter

    Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: Exeter - An excellent opportunity for a Solici...

    Ashdown Group: IT Support Technician - 12 Month Fixed Term - Shrewsbury

    £17000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Helpdesk Support Technician - 12 ...

    The Jenrick Group: Maintenance Planner

    £28000 - £32000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: Maintenance...

    The Jenrick Group: World Wide PLC Service Engineer

    £30000 - £38000 per annum + pesion + holidays: The Jenrick Group: World Wide S...

    Day In a Page

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'