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)

News
Susan Sarandon described David Bowie as
peopleSusan Sarandon reveals more on her David Bowie romance
Sport
Arsenal supporters gather for a recent ‘fan party’ in New Jersey
football
Sport
sportDidier Drogba returns to Chelsea on one-year deal
News
i100
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
film
Life and Style
Balmain's autumn/winter 2014 campaign, shot by Mario Sorrenti and featuring Binx Walton, Cara Delevingne, Jourdan Dunn, Ysaunny Brito, Issa Lish and Kayla Scott
fashionHow Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film
filmFifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage in US
News
people
News
BBC broadcaster and presenter Evan Davis, who will be taking over from Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight
peopleForget Paxman - what will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Life and Style
fashionCustomer complained about the visibly protruding ribs
News
newsComedy club forced to apologise as maggots eating a dead pigeon fall out of air-conditioning
Arts and Entertainment
Jo Brand says she's mellowed a lot
tvJo Brand says shows encourage people to laugh at the vulnerable
Life and Style
People may feel that they're procrastinating by watching TV in the evening
life
News
Tovey says of homeless charity the Pillion Trust : 'If it weren't for them and the park attendant I wouldn't be here today.'
people
Sport
Rhys Williams
commonwealth games
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

    Employment Solicitor

    Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: MANCHESTER - Senior Employment Solici...

    Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

    £600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

    Commercial Litigation Associate

    Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...

    Systems Manager - Dynamics AX

    £65000 - £75000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: The client is a...

    Day In a Page

    Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

    The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

    What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
    Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

    Finding the names for America’s shame

    The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
    Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

    Inside a church for Born Again Christians

    As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
    Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

    Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

    Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
    Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

    Incredible survival story of David Tovey

    Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little