The Dangers of Drug Smuggling
Quick money has a very real appeal. It is not only attractive to people who are greedy and always want more riches. Some of the people who crave an easy way to wealth do so because their daily lives are so desperate that they need to hope that they can be removed from poverty very quickly. Drug traffickers see this desperation and often exploit it by selling dreams of a better life where everything can be taken care of. These dreams often turn to nightmares however and through this paper we will look into some of the very real dangers faced by those who choose to smuggle narcotics across international boundaries.
Associating with dangerous criminals
Generally, the people who hire others for this type of task are very dangerous criminals. They may be very willing to kill anyone who gets in their way. This means that if you start trafficking for them and later change your mind, they may not let you stop. This puts you and your family at risk. Even your family members who may not realize what you do for a living could be at risk.
Possibility for physiological damage
If you are very lucky, the narcotics that you are asked to sneak into a foreign country may be placed in your luggage or hidden in your clothing, strapped to your body. Most drug traffickers are far less fortunate. They find themselves having to hide the drugs inside of themselves. They may be forced to swallow condoms full of cocaine, insert them into their rectums or vaginae or both. This is an uncomfortable process but the real damage comes from if these parcels rupture in transit. The quantity being transported was never intended to be consumed all at once by a single human being. This results in severe physical damage and perhaps death.
Possibility of incarceration or execution
As with any illegal activity, the possibility of being caught exists. Most countries try very hard to not be known as transshipment points. As a result, anyone caught involved in this activity is likely to be treated harshly. Sometimes, if you have been behaving erratically or seem to want to stop trafficking, they may deliberately set you up to be caught.
There are other ways to earn money in a difficult situation although most of them do not pay as well as this. On the other hand, few jobs are as dangerous as this either so it balances out.
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One of the most distressing elements of the worldwide migrant crisis is that people who have risked all for a better life should be held to ransom by smugglers.
The lines between migration and human trafficking all too easily converge. While migration implies a level of individual choice, migrants are sometimes detained and even tortured by the people they pay to lead them across borders.
Following the cash across borders – through a network of kingpins, spotters, drivers and enforcers – is central to understanding how this opaque and complex business works.
Everyone agrees there is not enough data. No one knows how many migrants are smuggled. However, enough is known about the money paid – by Eritreans, Syrians, Rohingya, and Afghans, among others – to demonstrate it is a multimillion-dollar business.
As Europe debates measures ranging from military attacks to destroying smugglers’ boats to increasing asylum places, what more can be done to prosecute those profiting at the crossroads of dreams and despair?
How much do migrants pay?
The cost varies depending on the distance, destination, level of difficulty, method of transport (air travel is dearer and requires fake documents) and whether the migrant has personal links to the smugglers, or decides to work for them.
The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) says journeys in Asia can cost from a few hundred dollars up to $10,000 (£6,422) or more. For Mexicans wanting to enter the US, fees can run to $3,500, while Africans trying to cross the Mediterranean can pay up to $1,000, and Syrians up to $2,500.
Abu Hamada, 62, a Syrian-Palestinian refugee, reckons he has earned about £1.5m ($2.3m) over six months by smuggling people across the Mediterranean from Egypt.
A place on a boat from Turkey to Greece costs between €1,000 and €1,200(£700 and £840), say migrants. Afghans pay between €10,000 and €11,000 to get to Hungary, which includes help from smugglers.
The UNODC says smugglers operating from Africa to Europe earn about $150m annually, while those from Latin America to North America are believed to earn roughly $6.6bn a year.
Money is often paid in instalments as a migrant moves from one group of smugglers to the next. For example, migrants from Afghanistan often use informal remittance systems, such as hawala. Funds are deposited with a hawaladar in Afghanistan, and on each stage of the journey the migrant will contact that person to release money to other hawaladars in transit countries.
Yama Nayab, an Afghan surgeon fleeing persecution by jihadists, said: “Sometimes the smugglers give me a GPS coordinate, sometimes they send a map, sometimes they send a car.”
The cost can involve buying fraudulent visas. For example, the UNODC says Bangladeshi migrants hoping to work in the Gulf need a sponsor, and some recruitment companies act as such, buying work visas and selling them to migrants.
“One source estimated that at one point, as many as 70% of Saudi Arabia’s work visas were sold on the black market,” said a UNODC report on migration published in April this year.
Other transactions are more blatantly criminal: Eritreans, who with Syrians and Afghans make up the majority of migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean, are often driven “for free” from Khartoum in Sudan to Ajdabiya on the Libyan coast, where they are locked up and tortured until relatives pay a ransom.
“They put you in a house until you pay,” said Osmorum, 19, an Eritrean who arrived in Italy this year. “They gave us food, but every night beat us with a whip of animal skin. They did this until my sister’s husband sent the money three weeks later.”
Smuggling migrants involves recruiters, transporters, hoteliers, facilitators, enforcers, organisers and financiers. Some smugglers were once themselves smuggled migrants, who now operate either in destination countries or transit states.
“You may have occasions where one of the smuggled migrants is given the key to drive the boat, and he’s paying maybe less than the others. Is this a smuggler?” said Ilias Chatzis, chief of the UNODC’s human trafficking and migrant smuggling section, organised crime and illicit trafficking branch. “Judicial systems are really struggling with handling and understanding the complexity of all these factors.”
One of Egypt’s most active smugglers is a Syrian who estimated he earned about £1.5m in 2014 sending an estimated 10,000 migrants to Italy. That was after payments to middlemen, sailing crews, shipowners – and the police. “If I want to smuggle 300 [migrants], the authorities will [arrest] 50 and let 250 go, to show the Italians they are doing some work. Maybe they [take] 100,000 Egyptian pounds ($12,800) per operation,” said the smuggler, who called himself Abu Uday.
Corrupt officials – police officers, border guards, diplomats – are rarely exposed. In July, however, Thailand’s state prosecutors said they were pressing charges against more than 100 people, including an army general, in a multinational human trafficking scandal that emerged after dozens of bodies were discovered in the south of the country this year.
Smuggling networks are generally not hierarchical, but some individuals may have transnational contacts. In some cases, for example on the US-Mexico border, criminal gangs are involved. A powerful drug cartel, Los Zetas, is believed to be supervising migrant smuggling.
“You have small groups handing the migrants over to the next groups. It’s very, very difficult to track the money,” said Chatzis.
The legal framework
The protocol against the smuggling of migrants by land, sea and air, which supplements the UN convention against transnational organised crime, came into force in January 2004, and 141 countries are party to it. It defines smuggling of migrants as “the procurement, in order to obtain, directly or indirectly, a financial or other material benefit, of the illegal entry of a person into a state party of which the person is not a national or a permanent resident”.
“The protocol requires the criminalisation of smuggling, it requires member states to focus on the smugglers not the migrants, it requires the protection of the human rights of the migrants, it asks for closer international cooperation,” said Chatzis. “It recognises sealing the borders is not going to solve the problem and is not possible in the majority of cases.”
What mechanisms exist for authorities to trace the money?
There are a number of red flags that can be used to detect possible smuggling activity.
“All legal tools, all anti-money laundering systems, are applicable,” said Oleksiy Feshchenko, an anti-money laundering expert at the UNODC.
Feshchenko said the key issue was cooperation between financial investigation units. Much of the money involved would be moved around as cash, or through informal money transfer or remittance systems like hawala.
In a 2011 report, the Financial Action Task Force – an intergovernmental body working to protect financial systems – detailed a number of cases where migrant smugglers were caught.
In 2005 five people were arrested in the UK for helping to smuggle roughly 20,000 Turkish migrants. They used legitimate businesses like kebab shops and a snooker hall to launder the money.
In Senegal, the financial intelligence processing unit found extensive trafficking in visas between that country and Europe. It turned out a west African woman who had two bank accounts married a European diplomat, and opened a third account with power of attorney to her husband. The accounts began showing transactions that attracted the bank’s attention. Further investigations found the woman was selling visas at between €5,000 and €6,000, which the diplomat issued. The money was laundered by buying real estate in Senegal’s capital, Dakar.
Migrant smugglers in Europe often use cash-intensive businesses, money service businesses, cash couriers, front companies and investments in goods, such as cars and real estate, to launder proceeds.
In America, casinos, import/export firms, cash-intensive businesses like car dealerships, wire transfers and online payments are used. In Asia, funds are often mixed with legitimate business proceeds, and transferred via formal and informal banking systems. In Africa, the emphasis is on buying real estate, investment in clubs or restaurants, offshore investments, and use of agents to carry cash.
Experts say migrant smuggling must be transformed from a “low-risk, high-reward” enterprise to a “high-risk, low-reward” one.
“It’s a business. It’s criminal, but it’s a business. It plays on supply and demand,” says Feshchenko. “Law enforcement agencies … should understand how this illegal business operates, and try to use all possible legal measures to destroy it.”
The UNODC has put together a database of case law on migrant smugglers to inform global legal opinion. It would also like to see improved collaborative investigation and prosecution responses, the creation of specialist operational units with high-level investigative and prosecutorial skills, and a transnational approach by law enforcement officials and policymakers.
In an action plan published in May, the European commission said it was essential to disrupt the criminals’ business models, which would require stronger coordination between law enforcement and judiciary structures in the EU.
While it offers no comfort to those who have lost loved ones, the increased visibility of migrants may spur change. The smugglers’ success may prove their downfall if it causes world governments to cooperate more.
Additional reporting by Patrick Kingsley