Airbridge won't take the mules - Fewer cocaine swallowers from Jamaica

Three years ago, Jamaica was the favourite destination from which people who swallowed cocaine, the so-called drug mules, boarded commercial flights to smuggle the drug into Britain.

It was the destination from which more swallowers were caught and more cocaine seized, outstripping all of its Caribbean neighbours together. Jamaica sent more mules to Britain than all West African countries combined.

But two years into Operation Airbridge, a joint effort by Jamaican and British law enforcement to fight the trafficking, UK officials say that things are changing. And so is Jamaica's image as a narco-capital of Britain.

"Jamaica, which was very much in first place three years ago, has made a significant move down to third," said John Whyte, the UK Customs' head of London and National Detection Region.

The numbers tell the story.

For the first five months of this year the British authorities recovered 135,153 grammes of cocaine passed out by Jamaican swallowers.

By contrast, West African countries accounted for 218,604 grammes of the cocaine seized from drug mules, to put that region into the dubious leadership position.

In the Caribbean, Jamaica has been an important transshipment point for cocaine because its geographic location made it an ideal spot for the smugglers from Colombia who want to send their contraband to Europe and North America. The fact that it has good air and sea links to these continents helped.

But as the Jamaican authorities have tightened security at the sea and airports, installed drug detection technology and deepened cooperation with international law enforcement agencies, the smugglers in this region have been turning their attention elsewhere in the Caribbean.

More cocaine is being detected in Britain from elsewhere in the Caribbean, more mules are being held, and Trinidad and Tobago is emerging as a substantial problem for the British.

For instance, the region, Jamaica excepted, now ranks number two on the table of seizures from the cocaine swallowers -185,084 grammes for up to May of this year.

Trinidad and Tobago apart, the other Caribbean countries to which the British are now paying keen attention are St Lucia, Antigua and Barbados and the Cayman Islands. The British have cooperation arrangements with these countries, although not at the same level as with Jamaica.

Much of this could change, however, given the recent law enforcement cooperation and training agreement signed recently in Kingston between Britain and the Caribbean Community (Caricom).

"We have seen good results in some of the islands," Whyte said in an interview. "Trinidad and Tobago is a bit of a problem area. We are seeing an increase there, but work is under way to (address that).

There is an increase in the people who are swallowing drugs in that country, there's an increase in drug smuggling compared to previous years."

Happily for Jamaica, the statistics have moved in another direction since the launch of Operation Airbridge in June 2002.

In its first year, the number of smugglers caught before leaving Jamaica jumped from 82 to 216. Based on UK Customs figures, it appears that over the last two years fewer swallowers have actually made their way into the UK.

In the two years since its inception, according to British statistics, the number of cocaine swallowers detected in the UK has fallen dramatically - from 730 in the preceding year to 185 in the first year of operation.

Up to June of this year, 41 swallowers had been arrested, a dramatic 90 per cent reduction since the operation began.

"I am 100 per cent convinced that we have made a significant dent in this method of smuggling," said Whyte.

At the time of the launch of Operation Airbridge, a British diplomat suspected that one in 10 Jamaican passengers on flights to the UK were swallowers, and that each plane carried as much as 30 kilos of cocaine. That profile has changed, according to Whyte.

He said: "We regularly test these flights. In the last few weeks we have gone in hard, looking at Jamaican flights. And over (a recent one-week) exercise, there were two drug detections, two cash seizures, four drug arrests. When you compare that situation to the results we would have had three years ago."

By Charmaine Clarke Assistant news editor

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