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Secrets of a Drug Smuggler

Narconomics200One of the most interesting books I've read this year is Tom Wainwright's Narconomics--a title we ultimately chose as a Top 10 Best of the Month pick for February. My guess is that when you hear someone talking about the drug trade what comes to mind is an image from TV or the movies—seedy dealers, million-dollar busts, films like Traffic and shows like The Wire. In Narconomics, Wainwright looks at the drug business as… a business. And it's fascinating. 

The book delves into the ways in which the internet has changed how people shop for drugs--not just pharmaceuticals, but heroin and cocaine--complete with customer reviews and ratings. It shows how cartels deal with suppliers in ways that are comparable to the ways corporations like Walmart handle their operations. And of course, a critical factor for any global retail business is transportation. As Wainwright discovered, when your cargo is illegal, people get very creative.... In this short piece written exclusively for the Amazon Book Review, he talks about five of the most inventive (and strange) smuggling stories he learned about in his research:

The Five Strangest Ways to Smuggle Drugs:

The global trade in illegal drugs is a borderless one, in which substances grown in far-flung corners of the world—the South American Andes in the case of cocaine, or mainly Afghanistan in the case of heroin—are smuggled to street corners in every city of every country. But to get their illicit products to customers, drug cartels must negotiate international frontiers where customs and border agents armed with X-rays and sniffer dogs lie in wait, threatening to intercept their shipments. Drugs are most often stashed in large containers on the backs of trucks or in ocean-going cargo-ships, and waved through by corrupt customs agents who are in on the scam. But sometimes drug cartels go to unusual and highly inventive lengths to get their products over the border. Here are a few of the strangest hiding places I have come across.

Crystal-meth push-up bras
Hiding drugs inside underwear may sound like a fairly obvious ruse. But what about stashing away nearly 500lbs of the stuff? Police in Australia made one of the biggest and certainly most surprising drug busts in the country's history after delving inside a shipping container sent from Hong Kong and discovering 190 litres of liquid methamphetamine hidden in a shipment of bras. The traffickers had carefully removed the packets of gel used to pad out the bras' cups and squeezed out the filling, replacing the gel with liquid meth and then sealing the packets up again. The drug-laden items of underwear were then stuffed back into their innocuous-looking pink packaging—each showing a pouting model and bearing the slogan "Magic push-up bras"—before being shipped to New South Wales. Police foiled the elaborate plot after tracing the Hong Kong shipment to a man on their criminal watch-list. Four foreign nationals were charged over the plot.

Heroin-laden puppies
Drug traffickers murder thousands of innocent people each year, but perhaps no atrocity has caused more outrage than the case of the cartel that smuggled drugs inside litters of adorable puppies. Police in Medellín, Colombia, raided a veterinary clinic to discover a number of Labrador and Rottweiler puppies with bags of heroin surgically implanted in their abdominal cavities. The culprit, a crooked Venezuelan vet, had planned to ship the dogs to the United States under the pretence that they were to be sold as pets. In a similar plot, South American traffickers forced dogs to swallow packets of cocaine, wrapped in vinyl tape to shield them from X-rays, before sending the dogs to Italy. There, imported animals face more lenient quarantining rules than in other European countries, and so the unfortunate animals were quickly released to the cartel's Italian contacts, in whose hands they met a sticky end. Calculating that the public cares more about animal victims than human ones, police have sometimes featured the stories of canine drug-mules in public information films about the dangers of drug smuggling.

Cannabis cannons
Police in California noticed that large packages of marijuana had begun appearing in the desert just over the border from Mexico, scattered around as if thrown over the frontier. Yet the packages, some of them weighing up to 30lbs, were far too big to have been hurled more than a few feet by hand. Could they have been dropped by plane? That would have aroused too much suspicion. Puzzled, the officers contacted their counterparts in Mexico, who searched the border area on the other side and made a startling discovery: an improvised "cannon" capable of firing cannabis cannonballs into America. The cannon had a long plastic barrel protruding from the back of an orange pick-up truck. Marijuana was packed into cylinders, which were loaded into the barrel and blasted out by the force of compressed air, generated by a compressor that was powered by an old car engine. The compacted shells could be fired more than 500 feet—just far enough to reach an accomplice on the other side of the border (who presumably had to take care not to get in the line of fire).

Underwater cocaine tubes
One of the most James-Bond-like plots I came across was a carefully designed scheme to import cocaine from South America into the Netherlands. The traffickers had packed their drugs into specially prepared tubes, which they had then attached to the hull of an ocean-going liner, whose crew were apparently none the wiser. The ship slowly crossed the Atlantic, bound for Europe, and 5,000 miles later made its way into a port in the Netherlands. At this point, the cartel had arranged that its Dutch accomplices would don SCUBA gear and slip under water to retrieve the tubes from the hull of the ship. All was going to plan until, according to police reports, the divers became unwell half-way through the operation. The seasick frogmen aborted the mission and returned to base shame-faced, to face their furious boss. The shipment of cocaine, worth thousands of dollars, was left stuck to the hull of the ship—where it may remain to this day, criss-crossing the oceans of the world.

With the help of Jesus
Part of the knack of successful smuggling is maintaining an innocent appearance. Many traffickers are stopped in their tracks after fidgeting in the line at the border, or looking uncomfortable as their bags are being searched. It is therefore crucial to employ a smuggler who looks as if he can do no wrong. So who could be better than Jesus? This was the reasoning used by one Mexican cartel, which mixed cocaine with plaster to create a 7lb statue of the son of God, to smuggle into the United States. A Mexican woman was paid to take the statue over the border in the trunk of her car. All was going well until Texan police opened up the trunk and allowed their sniffer dogs to examine the contents. The dogs took one whiff of Jesus and barked the alarm. In the confusion the woman smuggling the unholy contraband was able to escape back over the border. Meanwhile, the police seized Jesus, who later tested positive for cocaine.
--Tom Wainwright

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