`Swallowers' Risk Lives To Transport Heroin -- Poor Ingest Drugs In Hopes For A New Life
MIAMI - Celimo Henao-Perez locks himself in a squalid apartment in Cali, Colombia, and has one last meal before his plane ride to America.
First, he drinks a bitter liquid to numb his throat.
Then he swallows a pound of heroin.
The powder is packed in plastic pellets, each one the size of his thumb. He sips and swallows, sips and swallows, pellet after pellet, hour after hour, until 70 go down his throat.
Then he takes American Airlines flight 960 to Miami International Airport.
Almost every day, drug agents say, that flight brings in the newest wave of drug smugglers: farmers and mechanics, grandmothers and housewives, retirees and teen-agers. They are Colombia's poor and desperate, people like Henao-Perez, who risk their lives to transport heroin, the drug lords' new cash crop.
Nearly half of all the heroin seized in South Florida last year got here inside someone's belly.
It is a terrible risk to take. If a pellet breaks, a smuggler dies. Still, they keep coming. The reasons are simple.
It pays: One pound of heroin sells for about $100,000. Swallowers get about 5 percent of the cut.
It's hard to get caught: Drugs hidden inside a body are difficult to detect.
"There's nothing we can do," American Airlines spokesman Pat San Pedro said of flight 960, the only daily flight from Cali to Miami. "We can't physically X-ray every passenger who gets on board."
The drug dogs didn't bark when Henao-Perez walked into Miami's airport. The metal detectors didn't squeal. He blended in with grinning tourists, harried mothers and wailing children.
"Welcome to the United States!" the signs proclaimed.
He laughed. He was in.
"It's like an army of ants," said Hal Jordan, a Drug Enforcement Administration agent who tracks drugs coming in through the airport. "There's no way to know how many get in."
The cocaine trade started this way, trickling into the country inside human cargo. Now it comes by the ton, shipped in barrels of frozen passion fruit, spools of electric wire and hollow blocks of aluminum. Drug agents look at the past and dread the future. They fear that the wave of heroin-filled bodies is just the beginning.
"You have to stick your finger in the dike wherever you see a leak," DEA agent Ed Moses said. "We can't stop or the whole thing will crash."
Sixty-five U.S. Customs inspectors shore up the dam. They wade through six million international travelers every year. In 1992, they nabbed 92 drug swallowers.
The battle never ends. Even when inspectors arrest swallowers, the traffickers who sent them stay safe in Colombia. And there seems to be no limit to the number of people willing to take the trip, even if it means ending up in prison or in the morgue.
Four swallowers died in Dade County last year. One man left his wife to die in a Miami Beach hotel after a pellet burst in her belly. Seven months later, he was arrested making another drug run.
Henao-Perez says desperation keeps people coming.
"I decided I would do anything, even the impossible, to get money," said Henao-Perez, 57, who got arrested at the airport. He pleaded guilty and in April was sentenced to five years in prison.
"No one held a gun to my head. I did it because I had to," Henao-Perez said in a recent interview. "They stopped me, but there are more where I came from."
His story, like those of many swallowers, begins and ends in poverty. One of six children, Henao-Perez quit school in the fifth grade to work the fields. In 1978, he moved to New York.
He married an American to get residency papers. To make money, he made curtains in a factory. It took 12 years to save enough to open a street-corner cafeteria in Jersey City, N.J. It took four months for the restaurant to go bust.
He lost everything.
Hungry for cash, Henao-Perez went back to Colombia last November. Over coffee and cigarettes, he told a friend he would do anything for money.
"Even this?" the friend asked.
The offer: $10,000, easy money. Just swallow drugs and smuggle them to America.
"Like that, I said, `I'll do it,"' Henao-Perez said.
NO TROUBLE FINDING VICTIMS
Drug dealers also found Walter Garcia Ordonez, an air-conditioner mechanic from Bogota. His mother had heart problems. His wife and son lived in a bleak Brooklyn neighborhood. When an acquaintance offered $5,000, he took it.
"I just kept thinking about the money," said Garcia, who also got arrested in the airport. "I figured if anyone asked me where it came from I'd tell them the job was going really well."
The drug dealers make everything easy. They gave Henao-Perez the drugs. They gave him a bitter anesthetic to numb his throat. And they bought him a plane ticket. On Nov. 20, 1992, he boarded American Flight 960 and settled in for an easy ride.
"I came calm," he said. "I ate. I drank two shots of whiskey. I wasn't worried. Why should I worry?
"Who could see inside my stomach?"
The man with X-ray eyes is brown-haired and bearded. He wears tan Dockers and crunches coffee candy. (Made in Colombia, of course.)
He is U.S. Customs Inspector Tom Roland. A transplanted New Yorker, he hunts for onion bagels when he's off the job and looks for drug swallowers when he's on. He runs a team of undercover inspectors who patrol Miami International Airport.
Their mission: to see inside smugglers' stomachs.
Their tools: technology and psychology.
Even before planes take off in Colombia, a computer churns out a passenger list in Miami. Inspectors compare the list with the names, aliases and photographs of criminals and suspected drug traffickers.
Sometimes, inspectors know exactly for whom they're looking. More often, they watch for subtle hints: how passengers look, how passengers act.
They hunt for nervous passengers and ask casual questions: "So you're going to Disney World? For how long? Two weeks? Where's your luggage? Why just a day bag?"
Appearances don't always add up.
"You see the campesinos and all they did is clean up and put on a suit," Roland said. "You look at their hands and you can tell they're field workers."
When Customs inspectors stopped Henao-Perez, he denied everything.
"I fought until the end," he said. "Until I was lying in a hospital bed and they could see the pellets in my stomach through the X-ray."
Swallowers end up at Jackson Memorial Hospital. They take X-ray exams and drink laxatives. When nature takes its course, the inspectors hand over a pair of rubber gloves. The suspects must pick the pellets from their own excrement.
Then it's all over. Most swallowers plead guilty. The average sentence, nowadays: two years in prison.
The big guys, the ones who control the heroin, usually get away. That bothers federal prosecutors, who recently decided to hunt big traffickers instead of swallowers.
Drug agents aren't too happy about that. They want all drug smugglers to get stiff penalties. But even they feel sympathy for the mules. They hate the faceless Colombian traffickers who send them.
"They use them like boxes, like human garbage cans," Roland said. "People die."
For some swallowers, the round-trip ticket turns out to be only one way.
Henao-Perez is in prison now. He has five years to go.
No one in his family knows where he is. He sent letters to Colombia, explaining what had happened, but no one wrote back. He thinks they moved. He will search for them when he's released and deported in 1998.
He is lucky. Some swallowers never go home.
Copyright (c) 1993 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.