The Beer Belly Mules Drug Smugglers Lure Germany's Unemployed

Once the work of South Americans and Africans, Germans are now serving as human couriers to smuggle cocaine into Europe inside their bodies. A number of Germany's long-term unemployed, it seems, are willing to do the potentially deadly work of being drug mules in exchange for a tropical vacation and thousands of euros.


An anti-narcotic policewoman shows an X-ray of the abdomen of a "drugs mule." An illicit job once the domain of South Americans and Africans is being done increasingly by Western Europeans.

An anti-narcotic policewoman shows an X-ray of the abdomen of a "drugs mule." An illicit job once the domain of South Americans and Africans is being done increasingly by Western Europeans.

Hard-core alcoholics in the western German city of Essen often congregate at a bar in the city's Stoppenberg Market district. The clientele here, distinguished by their smoker's coughs and preference for cheap booze, are the kinds of people who spend the occasional night sobering up in a jail cell. A luxury vacation in the Caribbean isn't exactly what most of them have on their agendas.

But that was precisely what Guido K. was offering these hard-core drinkers when he showed up at the bar in August of last year: an all expenses paid vacation for 10 to 15 days, including Piña Coladas at poolside instead of cheap beer at their regular bar in Essen, and even €500 in spending money. There was just one catch. Anyone who wanted to make the trip had to complete a small job for Guido K. at the end of his vacation, a job that would pay another €4,000 ($5,877). Was anyone interested, K. asked?

Five of the men, regulars at the bar, didn't think about it for long, and soon afterwards they were boarding a jet for the first extended trip of their lives. It was also a potentially fatal mission.

The job that the men had to complete at the end of their tropical vacation consisted of swallowing as many rubber capsules filled with cocaine as possible. By hiding the drugs in their stomachs and intestines, the men would be able to make it through airport customs unnoticed on their return to Europe.

Until a few years ago, it was only South Americans and Africans who were willing to undergo the enormous risks involved to work as so-called body packers, or drug mules. If one of the cocaine packets bursts open inside the body, the courier faces certain death within minutes from respiratory distress and internal bleeding. For some time now, customs investigators and prosecutors have been encountering Germans who have been recruited to do the drug cartels' dirty work.

A cocaine smuggling ring that was recently cracked in Frankfurt am Main consisted of more than 20 men and women, many of them recipients of government aid under the Hartz IV welfare system for the long-term unemployed. In the town of Nörvenich near Cologne, the cartel recruiters even managed to get two unemployed mothers on board, and one of them even included one of her children in the deal. When the two women boarded their flight home, the little girl was given a small bag full of cocaine to carry on board.

In Essen's Altendorf neighborhood, a number of Nigerian dealers, posing as self-styled Romeos, managed to attract the attention of socially disadvantaged women. But far from having romantic intentions, their goal was to convince the women to serve as mules.

It's Like Winning the Lottery

Couriers who have swallowed drug packets stand a good chance of making it through airport security, where drug-sniffing dogs are unable to detect the contents of passengers' stomachs. Customs officials must have sufficient justification to require a suspected smuggler to undergo an X-ray and a monitored trip to the toilet. Couriers who look like package tourists from the German hinterlands are even less likely to raise the suspicions of customs agents. "It's Russian roulette if you're using a black man," says a dealer who is now under investigation by authorities in Frankfurt, "but if you can get a white German, it's like scoring six winning numbers in the lottery."

At first, Michael S. also thought the job was like winning the lottery. For the 46-year-old unemployed man who had never even left Germany's industrial Ruhr region, landing at the airport in Curacao, the largest island in the Netherlands Antilles, last September was like a dream come true. He was put up in a beachfront hotel called SuperClub Breezes, where a sumptuous buffet was served every night and he could drink for free throughout his entire vacation.

Michael S. wasn't alone. Two of his buddies from the Stoppenberg Market had also been flown to Curaçao. All three had received the same instructions over the phone: Enjoy yourselves, get a tan, and at some point a man will show up and bring you the packets to swallow and take home. "We had a great time," Michael S. said when he was questioned by police.

Body packers normally complete a brief training period, during which they practice with grapes and plums until they can pack the equivalent of 100 capsules, equal to a kilogram of cocaine, into their stomachs.

Michael S. and his friends didn't need any training to get that much packaged cocaine into their beer bellies. Each of them ended up smuggling cocaine back to Germany with a market value of about €50,000.

The three men from the Stoppenberg bar proved to be gold mines for the dealers in every respect. They easily made it through customs at airports in Amsterdam and Paris, excreted the drugs using diuretics right on schedule, and even recruited more mules back at their favorite bar in Essen.

"Suddenly they all wanted to fly," says the middleman, who is now on trial and is believed to have worked for backers in the Netherlands.

Michael S. and his friend flew a total of 23 trips -- to Jamaica, the Bahamas and French Guyana. But then the dealers began suspecting that one of the mules, a man named Björn B., was siphoning off some of the cocaine for himself. The middleman and an accomplice supposedly showed up at the 25-year-old man's door one morning and threatened to kill his mother unless he came up with the missing drugs. Suddenly afraid, Björn B. went to the police and told them everything. After five luxury vacations, he had finally realized that he was dealing with people who place very little value on human life.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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