More than one in 10 people on flights from Jamaica are drug mules carrying cocaine inside their bodies for little more than £3,000 a trip, it was claimed yesterday.
Phil Sinkinson, the British deputy high commissioner in Kingston, the capital, said the estimate was on the "low side" with each courier carrying about half a kilogram of the drug in dozens of tiny packages.
Some of the poorest people in Jamaican society were being lured into the potentially lethal business for a fraction of what the drug gangs could earn.
In October a 30-year-old woman died after one of the 55 packages of cocaine inside her body burst during a flight from Kingston to Heathrow. In the year to March 2001, 31 people were taken to hospital after packages began to leak.
Britain has become a particularly lucrative market because prices are considerably higher than in the United States. After the cocaine has been mixed with other products to maximise profits it is sold for about £62 a gram.
Last month, 25 people on a flight from Jamaica were arrested at Heathrow for allegedly smuggling drugs inside their bodies. A week later 15 passengers were arrested at Gatwick as officers sought to counter a surge in the trade before Christmas and New Year. The Channel Tunnel has also become an increasingly popular route into Britain because of scrutiny at the airports.
Despite the apparently large scale of smuggling, only slightly more than 400 couriers were intercepted at Heathrow and Gatwick airports in the year from April 2000.
In its threat assessment for 2001, the National Criminal Intelligence Service estimated up to 40 tons of cocaine was smuggled into Britain with only about one tenth being seized.
Much of the cocaine on its way to Britain from South America passes through the Caribbean. A large proportion is stockpiled on the Continent. Most of the cocaine reaches Europe in ships capable of carrying bulk loads but a "substantial amount" is smuggled into Britain by air.
West Indian traffickers based in Britain often recruit couriers in the Caribbean who are seen as expendable and know nothing about the full criminal operation. Gang members travel with the couriers to protect their investment. Others fly in via the United States or other European countries, particularly Germany, to try to deflect suspicion.
Mr Sinkinson warned that screening all passengers coming in from the Caribbean was impossible.
Air Jamaica has five flights a week to Heathrow, which will rise to nine from the end of March, and British Airways has four flights to Gatwick.
"It's very difficult to estimate exactly how many passengers on any flight have got cocaine hidden inside them," Mr Sinkinson told the BBC.
"There's certainly a fair number and each one can be carrying half a kilo. If you had 60 people on board the flight there would be 30 kilos of cocaine going through."
He said the Jamaican couriers could be offered up to £3,300 a trip. "If you consider they are coming from areas of pretty desperate poverty, a lot of them single mothers, it's very important for them to be able to get hold of a fast buck to look after the family."Reuse content