The Curaçao Connection Germany Becomes a Destination for Drug Mules
In 2011, Air Berlin became the first German airline to offer non-stop service to Curaçao. Since then, customs inspectors in Düsseldorf have been battling a serious cocaine smuggling problem.
The Airbus aircraft, in red and white livery, is parked at Gate 1 of the Curaçao airport. It's a Tuesday in June and passengers are waiting to board the jet. One young man dressed entirely in black stands out among the brightly clad vacationers on the Caribbean island.
Suddenly, customs officials rush into the departures hall and begin scanning the passengers with their eyes before their gazes settle on the man. When they lead him away, he doesn't resist.
The man had already caught their attention when he went through passport control, whereupon they examined the bag he had checked. They determined that the clothing in his suitcase had been soaked in liquid cocaine. More than six kilograms of the drug had been hidden using the not-uncommon method.
Arrests like this are a part of everyday life on the Caribbean island of Curaçao, which advertises itself as a vacation destination with its green palm trees, its white beaches and its crystal-clear water. Every Tuesday, an aircraft from Air Berlin, Germany's second-largest airline, flies from Düsseldorf to Curaçao before reversing course and arriving back in Germany on Wednesday afternoon. Most passengers are tourists, but drug couriers are also frequently on board.
Each week, when Flight AB7409 arrives in Düsseldorf, airport customs officials go on high alert -- and almost as often, they find cocaine aboard the aircraft. Last year, customs officials seized 132 kilograms (291 pounds) of it, arresting some 63 drug mules who had been carrying cocaine on their bodies. While already a phenomenon in other European countries with regular flights to the Caribbean, like the Netherlands, it's a new development for Germany. The route is an attractive one, too. Round-trip tickets start at 500 ($551) and, because the former colony is a Dutch territory, its residents do not require visas to visit the European Union.
Kenrick Hellement is the head of customs at Hato airport in Curaçao and is responsible for ensuring that cocaine doesn't end up on flights. With up to 1,000 passengers departing for Europe each day, though, it's a nearly impossible job. "I'm surely not the most-liked person here," Hellement says. He says he's even had to arrest fellow players from the softball team he plays on. With just 150,000 residents, it's the kind of place where you kind of know almost everyone.
Tons of cocaine are regularly transported to Curaçao, much of it coming from Venezuela, located only 60 kilometers (37 miles) away. It takes less than an hour to make the journey by speed boat, and Curaçao's coast, with its many lagoons, bays and beaches, makes it relatively easy to get the product onto land. A kilogram in Colombia, where cocaine is produced, costs $1,500. Once it reaches Curaçao, it is worth $5,000. By the time it is sold in Europe, it costs $50,000 per kilogram.
Curaçao's drug mules are also creative. The customs official tells of one man who reached for a specific bottle of spirits in the back row on a shelf in the duty free shop. When they examined it, they found the bottle was full of liquid cocaine.
Many mules transport the drugs in their bodies, ingesting up to a kilogram of cocaine. The powder is packed into the fingers of the kind of latex gloves used by doctors -- up to 10 grams each -- and then swallowed. Locals call the small balloons: bolitas. Mules use boiled eggs to practice swallowing and they take medication to inhibit bowel activity during the flight.
Those caught in Germany are jailed in Düsseldorf, with 46 men from Curaçao are currently being held in the city, placing an additional burden on the city's justice system. "At times, we've had up to 80 detainees from Curaçao here," says Elke Krüger, head of the Düsseldorf prison. Now, though, the prisoners are sent to other jails as well.
The smugglers are also creating significant difficulties for Brond-Hendrick Böttcher, head of customs at the Düsseldorf Airport, which is Germany's third largest. As an economic enterprise with a high number of passengers who need to be processed quickly, the Düsseldorf Airport is a "hostile environment" for the kind of intensive controls necessary to combat the problem, says Böttcher. Adequate screening takes up a lot of time.
Böttcher is happy when the flight from Curaçao arrives at Gate C06 -- the one located furthest from baggage claim. It gives his staff a bit more time to give travelers the once over. Furthermore, once the last passenger has disembarked, customs officials order that the doors be closed and nobody allowed on board until they have had a chance to search the plane for drugs. Even the contents of the waste-holding tank are destroyed.
Böttcher watches closely as the passengers make their way to baggage claim. Around two dozen are asked to open their suitcases. "Where are you traveling to?" they are asked. "What are your plans? What's in your suitcase?" They also swab peoples' hands, allowing officials to detect traces of cocaine in their sweat.
Around half of those initially questioned are then asked to go to another section of the building, where they are subjected to deeper interrogation. In the end, one passenger admits to having swallowed cocaine. He is taken to a special toilet and a judge issues an arrest warrant. The public prosecutor accuses Romeo Roy J. -- a 39-year-old divorcé and father of two -- of having transported 55 bags, each containing 13.5 grams, in his bowels. That's a total of 742 grams (26 ounces) of cocaine, likely enough for a sentence of a couple years behind bars. He says he was in need of money and that he had been promised 2,000 to act as a mule. What nobody knows, though, is the number of smugglers who actually made it through undetected on this particular flight.
The problem isn't expected to go away, either, given that Air Berlin officials plan to add a second flight to Curaçao on Saturdays beginning in November.