The Inside Dope: Avianca Drug Mules

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Doctors treating survivors of Avianca Flight 52 found a few surprises inside their patients. One turned out to have 29 cocaine-filled packets, each 1 1/4- in. long, in his intestines. The other had swallowed at least two dozen 2- in.-long bags containing cocaine.

The practice, hardly new, can be fatal if a container ruptures. The autopsy on a passenger from Venezuela who died en route to Kennedy Airport in 1970 revealed 120 packets of cocaine in his intestines. He apparently made the mistake of using a permeable natural-skin condom, rather than a latex one, to hold the drug, which seeped into his stomach. Since the intestines are 27 ft. long, they can contain large quantities of contraband.

Mules, as drug couriers are known, often practice the difficult ingestion by substituting large quantities of grapes. They may take anti-laxatives to hold the drugs, and fast until they are past Customs. Couriers can earn at least $3,000 for taking such a risk.

Customs inspectors can detain suspects for X-ray exams or until they pass the drugs in their feces. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that no warrant is necessary for this intimate search. Last year 110 people were arrested at Kennedy after drugs, mostly heroin, were found in their stomachs or intestines. Recovering from their injuries, the Avianca mules face felony charges for possessing cocaine.