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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Fear of Swallowing Drug Leads to Africans' Arrests

Customs police at Sheremetyevo airport made a big narcotics score this weekend when a pair of African "mules" lost their nerve and failed to swallow their bounty.

Drug swallowers, known in the United States as "mules," are a type of international trafficker who transports his goods by swallowing them in sealed rubber pouches -- usually condoms -- before deplaning and passing through customs. The "mules" are generally given their cargo by middlemen and don't know their supplier, making them an especially secure and attractive way for major traffickers to do business.

The two African men, a Nigerian and a Ghanian, had travelled on an Aeroflot flight from Rio de Janeiro to Moscow early Saturday morning when they were searched at customs in Sheremetyevo. According to the State Customs Committee, customs officials found about three kilograms of cocaine in their luggage, wrapped in nearly 150 condoms that were sealed with scotch tape.

"It looks as though they were afraid to swallow them," said Boris Razdorozhny of the Customs Committee. "They just left them there in their luggage, hoping we wouldn't search them."

Drug-swallowing can result in fatalities when condoms containing cocaine or heroin burst, releasing a deadly overdose into the carrier's system.

"Muling" has become more common in Russia in the last six months. According to the Moscow police press office, the Saturday arrests were the third and fourth mule arrests made in Sheremetyevo in the last two months. In each of the four recent arrests, the suspects had failed to swallow their drugs, leading police to speculate that a significant quantity of narcotics is passing through customs undetected.

"If these are the only ones we're catching, then there must be people who aren't afraid to swallow getting through pretty regularly," Razdorozhny said. His office planned on installing special equipment to detect mules.

Many airports in the United States have installed X-ray machines at customs checkpoints, and some U.S. customs officers use emetics or laxatives to screen suspects or travellers with drug-trafficking records.

Bob Silbering, a special narcotics prosecutor in the New York City police department, said that "muling" in the last few years has become an enormous problem not only in his city, but worldwide."A day doesn't pass in a New York airport without a muling arrest," he said. "It's a practice that's been in existence for about 15 years, but has really skyrocketed in the last three or four."

Silbering said that the practice began with heroin dealers in Nigeria, and that even today most "mules" originate from West Africa.

"Recently, the Colombians have begun trading in heroin using mules," he said. "But aside from them, almost all of them are West Africans, in my experience."