Young cocaine couriers are 'naive or in love'

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The Independent Online

A 19th-century fort converted into a jail on an islet in the Caribbean is hardly the ideal location for a British baby to spend the first two months of his life.

A 19th-century fort converted into a jail on an islet in the Caribbean is hardly the ideal location for a British baby to spend the first two months of his life.

But when Rory's mother Dionne was sent to Jamaica's Fort Augusta women's prison last February she was already three months pregnant.

Jailed for trafficking cocaine, she became one of the record number of British women held in prisons around the world as drug cartels increasingly turn to female couriers to smuggle their product.

Five British women were arrested on a single flight out of Jamaica last month and charged with drug smuggling.

According to the charity Prisoners Abroad, which helps Britons jailed overseas, the number of British women being held in prisons around the globe has doubled in a year. There are more than 340 British women in foreign jails, 102 held in America, 80 scattered around the Caribbean, 29 in Spain and 14 in France. The women range from a 16-year-old in Trinidad to two 67-year-old women held in separate jails in the United States.

Mo Mowlam, Minister for the Cabinet Office, visited some of the 56 British women held in Jamaica in January and was so concerned by what she saw that she is working with the Jamaican authorities to improve conditions.

"They are varied in age from grannies to young kids and they are both black and white," she said. "The women accepted they had to be in prison but they didn't like the conditions."

Dr Mowlam is also speaking to airline companies to ask them to revalidate the tickets of women who are released from prison in Jamaica and have no means of getting home.

"I am in negotiations with all the relevant airlines that take passengers back and I am making progress," she said. "[But] we have to careful about treating people better than people who have been robbed. [The prisoners] are in bad conditions but they did something wrong."

According to the Foreign Office, 89 per cent of women jailed in Jamaica are being held on drug charges.

Carlo Laurenzi, director of Prisoners Abroad, said the increasing involvement of British women in drug smuggling was linked to a change in tactics by the Colombian cartels, which supply the growing UK demand for cocaine.

Instead of routing their shipments through Brazil, as was the case five years ago, the cartels are transporting cocaine in high-powered boats to the islands of the Caribbean. Cuba is used as a staging post to bring drugs into southern Europe while Jamaica and some of the smaller English-speaking islands are seen as bridgeheads for the British market.

According to Mr Laurenzi, the US government is largely to blame for these developments. The strict implementation of the 1996 US Immigration Act has led to the mass deportation of large numbers of jailed criminals to countries in the Caribbean and South America.

He said: "North America is booting out highly effective gangsters, half of whom end up in the Caribbean. As a result, you have a far more sophisticated drug distribution scheme in those islands." Prisoners Abroad now represents six British inmates in Trinidad, six more in Grenada, six in Barbados and four in St Lucia.

Mr Laurenzi said: "These islands are not geared up for this. They are tiny. They do not have the police intelligence infrastructure to cope with these sophisticated gangs."

He said the women were persuaded to carry the drugs because "they are either naïve or they are in love".