Sunday 29 July 2012

The world of DRUG MULES

Drug couriers who are not involved in any other drug dealings could potentially be spared the gallows once proposed changes to the mandatory death penalty law are passed later this year. But they also have to be either mentally disabled, or have cooperated with the authorities. Tham Yuen-C speaks to insiders on drug mules and the rules they live by.
The Straits Times, 28 Jul 2012

A YOUNG man drove from his home in Malacca to Johor Baru town, and pulled up outside a 7-Eleven store.

There, a man he knew only as 'boss' handed him the keys to another Malaysian-registered car, and instructed him to drive it across the Causeway, to a carpark in Bukit Batok.

He was to leave the car there, unlocked, for a few hours, and in return would be paid RM1500 (S$600).

But the Malaysian, who worked in Singapore as a cook, never made it to his destination. He was nabbed at the Woodlands Checkpoint in 2010, with bundles of heroin in his car.

Last Friday, the same story was allegedly played out again. This time, it was Singaporean Danny Ng, 42, who was arrested at Manila's Ninoy Aquino International Airport with 3.5kg, or 15 million pesos (S$450,000) worth of methamphetamine on him.

In drug-trafficking parlance, both of them are known as 'jockeys', the people whose main job is to drive or ride from a start point to the final stop.

These are the couriers at the bottom rung of the drug syndicate ladder, who could potentially be spared the noose by proposed changes to Singapore's mandatory death penalty laws announced in Parliament earlier this month.

Instead of the death sentence, they will now be eligible for life imprisonment if they cooperate with the Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) in a substantive way, or have substantial mental disabilities.

Speaking to The Straits Times from her home in Malacca, the sister of the Malaysian said: 'I think he knew there was something illegal in the car, maybe drugs, but he didn't know what and how much.'

Keeping these details from drug couriers, said one former gang leader who hired them for drug runs around 2001, was the norm.

'As a courier, whenever they receive a call, they just have to respond. For them, the rule of the game is simple. When the time comes, you just do it, bring it where you have to,' said the 35-year-old Singaporean who was released from prison here in 2005.

Revealing the modus operandi as he knew it then, he said the drugs were typically stuffed into the vehicles at car repair shops in JB. When his couriers were summoned, they knew only that they had to drive to the designated repair shop, then wait a few days.

During this time, the cars or motorbikes would be taken apart and packed with the bundles of drugs they had to bring into Singapore.

In recent years, CNB officers have found drugs in car engines, battery compartments, tyres and motorbike seats.

The couriers, though, were rarely told where exactly the drugs were hidden, claimed the former gang leader.

'If you are riding a motorbike and you know there are drugs right under your seat, you will be more nervous,' he said. 'They are not told so much so that they won't behave suspiciously and give themselves away.'

The couriers are paid for the job within hours of a successful run. The sums vary, depending on the amount and type of drugs carried.

Lawyer Rupert Seah, who has represented three drug couriers, said his clients were promised between $3,000 and $7,000. Two of them escaped the gallows but one has been sentenced to hang and has appealed to the President for clemency.

A courier earns more delivering methamphetamine, heroin and cannabis than other drugs, because trafficking in the three drugs can result in the death penalty.

The amount, though, is only a fraction - less than five per cent - of what the syndicates would net selling the drugs, said the former gang leader.

Despite that, it is not hard to find drug mules willing to sacrifice their lives for a quick buck, he said.

Mr Seah's three clients had all owed money and were trying to pay off debts.

Veteran criminal lawyer Amolat Singh said his clients had also fallen on hard times, and were approached by the syndicates at coffee shops in Johor Baru.

'First, the person would buy them food and befriend them, then lend them money, and after that, the person would demand payment,' he said. 'When they had no money to pay, they were asked to deliver the drugs.'

Both lawyers noted that the syndicates are recruiting younger drug mules, with most of those caught in recent years in their 20s and 30s.

There are those who will definitely get caught because, sometimes, these couriers are ratted on by the very people who passed them the drugs, said the former gang leader. Dealers are known to sacrifice one courier as a tactic to give the next one a higher chance to get through undetected.

Typically, the first courier carries a smaller, but still substantial, amount of drugs. Someone then calls to tip the authorities off. Once he is arrested, another courier will try to make his way through Customs with the motherload.

'The couriers knows this happens, but they won't know whether they are A or B,' said the former gang leader.

Ustaz K. H. Abdul Majeed, who counsels drug couriers on death row, said many had been told that they would not get into 'big trouble' and felt they had been used and tricked.

'From my six years of experience counselling them, I have never come across anyone who says they are prepared to come to jail and they don't care,' he said. 'They always regret terribly what they had done.'

The religious leader advises them to focus on what else they can do for their families before their time is up.

The Malaysian trafficker was sentenced to 20 years' jail and caning after he was found guilty of trafficking in less than 15g of heroin. Charging offenders with carrying less than 15g of heroin is part of the discretion that the public prosecutor has in pursuing drug trafficking cases, which would otherwise carry the mandatory death penalty.

If the proposed changes to the law are approved by Parliament later this year, discretion will also be vested in the judges.

Said Mr Alvin Yeo, an MP on the Government Parliamentary Committee for Law and Home Affairs: 'The good thing is that it gives the court some discretion to deal with exceptional circumstances, and there may well be compassionate cases and cases where drug mules are very cooperative and can give some valuable information.'

For those worried about whether the changes could cause a surge in trafficking, Mr Yeo, a senior counsel, doubted it would be so, noting that life imprisonment remains a tough deterrent.

In Singapore, a life sentence means incarceration until death, unless a prisoner is released after a review of his sentence, which he can ask for only after 20 years.

Jail time, said Ustaz Majeed is never easy. 'It is very tough on the family members, and many of them fall into depression,' he said.

The Malaysian trafficker's family went through a dark period and spent time and money travelling to Singapore to visit him in prison.

His 52-year-old mother told The Straits Times that the family took the last two years to let go of the unhappy episode, and are focusing on the future.

Jail time has cured her son of his explosive temper, which he used to unleash on them often, she said. He has also converted to Christianity, and is applying to study while serving his sentence.

'He regrets what happened and has changed a lot since he was jailed. I am just waiting for the day he is released so he can start afresh.'

Drug couriers, mules or jockeys are people whose main job is to drive or ride - without knowing what exactly they are ferrying - from one start point to the final stop. Dealers are known to sacrifice one courier as a tactic to give the next one a higher chance to get through undetected.

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