Drug mules at São Paulo airport
Words and photographs by Jackie Dewe Mathews
Published: September 10 2010 18:59 | Last updated: September 10 2010 18:59
More than 70,000 people a day pass through Brazil’s São Paulo Guarulhos International airport. And every day, five of them are arrested for drugs trafficking. Many of them are women; drug mules taking their chances at what has become the main exit point for people carrying cocaine from South America to the rest of the world. With flight connections to 53 countries, the airport is well positioned to supply the increasing global demand for cocaine.
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Less than a decade ago, only 40 foreign women were imprisoned in the entire state of São Paulo. But the number of arrests of foreign women has risen so dramatically that all such prisoners have moved to the São Paulo Capital Penitentiary for Women, where, at more than 400, they account for more than half the prison’s population. Many of them have been charged with – or convicted of – acting as drugs mules.
The largest contingent comes from South Africa, where an existing drugs problem, alongside a massive gulf between rich and poor, has created an environment in which women are prepared to take huge risks in order to earn quick money. If they are caught, they face prison terms of between three and 15 years, with the right to just two phone calls a year.
Brazil’s penal system is slow and cumbersome – it can take up to six months after an arrest for a court hearing and up to a year for sentencing. The law against drug trafficking is so vague that sentencing often depends on the judge’s mood.
The other jet set
'They assured me everything would be fine because they had a good relationship with the police at the airport in Brazil'
This Portuguese girl, married and with a good job, was tricked by a friend into taking her place as a drug mule on a trip to Brazil. Stopped and searched at the airport, she said that when her friend asked for help she couldn’t say no. She has been in prison – where she has been given work cleaning the schoolroom – for ten months and is still awaiting her sentence
Prisoners are entitled to conditional freedom or parole at the two-thirds point of their sentence, when they are free to leave the prison. But they must remain in Brazil, where life can be dangerous for a foreigner with no place to stay, no work permit, or family to help them. In 2006, Catholic nuns set up a shelter for women finishing their sentences. They soon found that because many of the foreign prisoners couldn’t afford flights home, some of them were driven to become mules again in order to pay for their trip.
Few of the women in prison for drug trafficking have ever committed a crime before. Far from being calculated serial offenders, most of them were driven by extreme poverty to take what they intended to be a one-off risk. Traffickers, skilled in identifying desperate women, promised many of them that they had good relationships with police and airport officials and that nothing could go wrong.
The alarming truth, though, is that many of these women were never meant to succeed. The traffickers themselves often tip off the police about a mule – while arresting her, their attention is steered away from the more lucrative load that is being smuggled through by someone else on the same flight.
But the women keep on coming, drawn by promises of between £500 and £6,000 – life-changing sums for many – for carrying anything between half a kilo and 12kg.
“You cannot say anyone who does this is a greedy woman or a cheap woman,” said a South African woman being held at São Paulo Capital Penitentiary. “If you look at the women here and you listen to their stories, you will see that these are mothers, sisters and wives. People that had decent lives. Circumstances drove them to do this.”
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