The case of the young Scotswoman Melissa Reid and the young Irishwoman Michaella McCollum Connolly, arrested this week at Jorge Chávez Airport in Lima with around 11kg of cocaine hidden in packages of food, is in one sense unremarkable.
More than 100 British citizens were arrested in the Caribbean and Latin America last year, the vast majority of them for drugs offences. So why has this case captured the public imagination? And what are the consequences of such high-profile incidents for our thinking about drug trafficking?
The Lima case neatly fits common stereotypes about drug traffickers. Films like Clear and Present Danger and Traffic depict drug traffickers as manipulative, foreign gangsters. As a corollary of this hyper-machoness, women’s participation is seen as involuntary – as innocent mules. Common stereotypes about drug trafficking are deeply gendered and rely on simplistic binaries: men are dangerous; women are in danger.
Yet, these preconceptions have little basis in fact. Researchers consistently fail to find cartels involved in drug trafficking, instead encountering small, temporary collections of individuals. Instead of an organised hierarchy, they find flattish, networks, and in reality, most mules are men. Many of these men participate willingly but a small portion are coerced or threatened with violence: men as well as women.
Drug mules are now drawn from a much wider sector of the population. While 20 years ago customs officials were said to be able to spot a drugs mule by his new shoes, the kind of people arrested for drug trafficking now embraces all ages and demographics – pensioners, working people, “ordinary” couples, families and backpackers.
These stereotypes cause real harm by legitimating harsh punishments. Across Latin America, drug mules receive minimum sentences of around eight to 12 years (in the UK, the average is seven years, six months). In the Middle East and Asia mules may receive the death penalty. Untold numbers of people have been executed for drug offences worldwide since 1970.
This figure is all the more horrific considering that the majority will have been not the people behind the industry but drug users and mules. Or there was the 2009 case involving Akmal Shaikh – the Briton who was the first European to be executed in China for more than 50 years, despite having mental health problems and having been exploited as a mule.
Failing to recognise drug trafficking for what it is means that the solutions that we have do not work. And while all of this is not to deny the reality of Melissa Reid and Michaella McCollum Connolly’s situation and their claims of threats and coercion, it’s worth remembering that they are very far from typical.
Dr Jennifer Fleetwood is a lecturer in criminology at the University of Leicester