SUNDAYINDEPENDENT /18 December 2011 at 09:02am
Duped into taking a job overseas, forced to swallow over a kilogram of drugs on four different continents, not getting paid and deprived of food for not obeying orders.
This is the picture painted by a South African drug mule currently in hiding with two others after escaping from Istanbul in Turkey, where she made a U-turn to SA instead of Bangladesh where she was supposed to collect drugs.
Thirty-year-old *Nono, whose name has been withheld for her safety, has sought refuge with the Hawks after managing to escape from the clutches of a drug syndicate this week.
Nono had responded to an advert placed in Isolezwe newspaper in October. She said the advert in the classified section of the newspaper looked legitimate with a landline number.
“I phoned the number and I was interviewed at the Teacher’s Centre in Durban (room 203 on the second floor) for what seemed like a legitimate job at a shoe factory,” she said.
During the interview, she said, there were two Nigerian men and one Zulu-speaking woman.
Nono said she was told she would be transporting shoes from one country to another, but when she arrived in Nepal, things changed when he she heard her body would be used to conceal drugs.
“We were a group of nine when we left the country. When we got to Nepal the Nigerian guy told us that we have got to be kidding to think that we can be brought all the way from Africa to Asia just for shoes. That’s when we were told that we will be transporting drugs from one country to another,” Nono said.
She said they were kept in a flat next to Shin Shin Japan hospital, where the training on how to swallow drugs began.
Nono added that their training began with carrots – peeled and halved. “We were instructed to swallow halved carrots and the smallest piece that we had to swallow was the size of a thumb,” she said.
She added that after swallowing lots of carrots her throat was swollen and she could not eat.
“Drugs are covered in plastic that is thick to make them solid. From there they are wrapped with a foil so that the scanner cannot detect them. Then a very light plastic which is normally used to cover sandwiches is used so that it can be easy to swallow the drugs,” Nono said.
She said her first job was to swallow 102 pieces of cocaine- which she said weighed just over 1kg. “I took the cocaine from Nepal to Bangladesh. From there I went to Bolivia to collect more drugs which were to be taken to Bangladesh,” Nono said.
“If by any chance you defecate the drugs in a plane, you have to clean them, sanitise them and swallow them again. Otherwise you are a dead woman walking,” Nono said.
They were normally given a Castor oil-like substance, Epsom salt or lots of milk so that the drug ‘capsules’ can be discharged from their stomachs at the same time.
She now lives in fear. “I know that they (druglords) are looking for me and they are going to kill me. It is just a matter of when,” Nono said.
She said this is because a few minutes after arriving at King Shaka International Airport she and another mule were mugged and their luggage stolen.
Nono added that on Wednesday she was stopped by two men who asked her where “the market” – a term used to describe drugs – was.
“The thing is Nigerian druglords rule the world. They have their people in each and every airport around the world. They have pictures of all their drug mules.
“I suspect they thought we ran away with the drugs, whereas we made a U-turn to South Africa prior to collecting them,” Nono said, adding that her controller had about five or six passports all with different names and surnames.
She says there is a stigma about South African women being drug mules, adding that she had been to Nepal, Bangladesh, New Delhi, Bolivia, Brazil, Turkey, and other countries which were transits.
She added she was almost caught in Argentina with about 800g of cocaine.
“I was instructed by customs people to take off all my clothes including my panties and I was strip-searched. A female police officer inserted her fingers in my private parts to check if I had not hidden any drugs in there. They then put a scanner in my mouth, but they could not see anything because my throat was swollen and the drugs inside were covered in a foil,” Nono said.
She said druglords had a tendency of deliberately getting their mules arrested if they did not want to swallow around 2kg of drugs.
“I still believe that they tipped-off the police about me because on that day I had the smallest amount of drugs in my tummy… which they regarded as ‘under-performance’,” she said.
She adds that another woman – a 24-year-old from Waterloo, in Durban – was arrested at the beginning of November in Argentina and she has been sentenced to 25 years in jail, but her family does not know. “On that day Zinhle had the smallest amount of drugs in her body and I believe that police were tipped about her. Druglords normally tip off the police about someone who is carrying the smallest amount of drugs so that the spotlight will be on her, and those with dozens be allowed to walk though airports,” Nono said. She said that through all her drug trafficking work, she and fellow drug mules have never been paid.
Nono said when they asked for the payment they were asked by their bosses: “Have you seen any money here? We deal in drugs not in money. So please don’t make your financial issues ours.”
She added that they were not allowed to walk alone even to the shops, were not allowed to phone home and if they happened to have at least $20, they would hide it so that they could buy food during the “punishment days”.
She said they were usually deprived of food whenever one of them swallowed less than 500g of drugs.
Nono said she had met Nobanda Nolubabalo, the suspected drug mule arrested this week in Thailand, a few times, when she was delivering for her boss, but she said Nolubabalo was in another group.
Of her return to SA from Turkey, Nono said: “There was three of us. When we got there we were interrogated by customs people, and we showed them tickets to Brazil. We told them that we were going there to meet our sister who was going to buy us tickets to South Africa, and they offered to convert our tickets. That is how we managed to escape from the druglords,” Nono said.
Department of International Relations and Co-operation spokesman Clayson Monyela said there were 985 South African nationals in jails abroad and 67 percent of them were sentenced for drug-related offences.
Monyela added that the prevalence of South African female drug mules around the world has not had any effect in South Africa’s relations with other countries.
Hawks spokesman McIntosh Polela declined to comment for fear of jeopardising investigations and revealing the identities of the three women. – Gcwalisile Khanyile
* Not her real name