Germans faced with drugs from Curaçao
WILLEMSTAD–In 2011 Air Berlin became the first German airline to offer non-stop service to Curaçao and Customs inspectors in Düsseldorf have been battling a serious cocaine smuggling problem since then, according to a report from Der Spiegel.
The Airbus aircraft, in red and white livery, is parked at Gate 1 of Curaçao’s Hato-airport. It is 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 departure hall and begin scanning the travellers with their eyes before their gazes settle on the man. When they lead him away, he doesn’t resist.
The suspect 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 this not-uncommon method.
Arrests like this are a part of everyday life on Curaçao, a vacation destination with palm trees, white sandy beaches and crystal-clear water.
Every Tuesday a plane 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 or inside 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 euros (US $551) and because the former colony is a Dutch territory, its residents do not require visas to visit the European Union (EU).
Kenrick Hellement is the head of Customs at the airport in Curaçao and responsible for ensuring that cocaine doesn’t end up on flights. With as many as 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’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 regularly enters Curaçao, much of it coming from Venezuela located only 60 kilometres (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 US $1,500. Once it reaches Curaçao, it is worth US $5,000. By the time it is sold in Europe, it costs US $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 stomachs, 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 where 46 men from Curaçao are currently being held, 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 travellers 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’s men watch closely as passengers come out of the baggage claim area. Around two dozen are told to open their suitcases and asked questions such as: “Where are you travelling to? 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 balls. 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 euros 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 is not expected to go away, either, given that Air Berlin officials plan to add a second flight to Curaçao every Saturday beginning in November.
Source: Der Spiegel (Germany)