Another body washes up along the river of death

DAN RODRICKS

August 14, 1993|By DAN RODRICKS

Amazing things happen along the rivers of heroin that flow across continents and into the cities of the world and, eventually, into the veins of men and women and even, sometimes, children.

A lot of people die along the banks of those rivers.

It's how they die -- the circumstances immediate to death -- that speaks to the intensity and scope of heroin commerce, and to the power of the poison. It can convince you, if you're not already, that the river will never stop flowing. Heroin is abundant and popular again. Dealers are selling increasingly pure grades of it. Couriers are eager to deliver it.

Consider the recent death in Baltimore of a 43-year-old man from Nigeria. I offer it not simply as a macabre anecdote, but as tragic testimony to the crazed, desperate nature of life along the rivers. It's an example of the extremes to which men -- poor men, in particular -- will go to keep the rivers flowing so that they might pan a bit of gold from them.

The man was listed on the police report as Nurudeen Abari.

A month ago today, late in the afternoon, he collapsed on the floor of a small business in South Baltimore. His death was attributed to drug intoxication.

The autopsy revealed that the man had carried a large amount of heroin, apparently from Nigeria, inside his body.

According to police, Abari had just returned to Baltimore from his homeland when he collapsed at the business where, according to the owner, he had worked on a part-time basis over the past year.

The autopsy disclosed 38 small cylindrical capsules, each about an inch and one-quarter long, inside the stomach and intestine. The capsules contained "high-grade heroin," according to Dr. John E. Smialek, Maryland's chief medical examiner. The federal Drug Enforcement Administration confirmed that the substance inside the capsules was about 88 percent heroin. (In street samples taken in major U.S. cities last year, the DEA found the average purity of heroin to be about 38 percent.)

The DEA has been saying that, with bumper crops in the world's major opium-producing countries, both the supply and purity of heroin are on the rise.

"There has unquestionably been a significant increase in the use of heroin in the United States, and it appears to be continuing to expand," DEA Administrator Robert C. Bonner said last week.

In April, the government reported that the war against drugs had made only limited headway against the trade in cocaine and heroin, and it cited Nigeria as a major contributor to the international market. In fact, the report estimated that Nigerian organizations control 50 percent of all heroin trafficking worldwide. Heroin also streams in from Laos, Thailand, Myanmar (formerly Burma), Pakistan, Afghanistan, Lebanon and Mexico.

Heroin, transformed to morphine in his liver, is what killed Nurudeen Abari.

One of the capsules in his stomach ruptured at some point during his trip from Nigeria through New York to Baltimore.

It has happened before, but it has not happened frequently.

"If it did," Smialek said, "one would think that such a method of drug transport would be self-limiting."

Smialek and Dr. Francesco Introna Jr. reported on the phenomenon of the ingestion of drug containers, such as balloons, rubber sacks and latex condoms, in the American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology. Their report appeared in 1989. (The earliest scientific reports on intoxication from the ingestion of drug-filled balloons were written in the mid-1970s.)

In Maryland, between 1984 and 1987, Smialek and Introna reported, there were seven overdoses from drug containers rupturing after they were ingested. Six of the victims were men ranging from 19 to 37 years old. Two of them happened to be Nigerians.

In the parlance of the street, such couriers are know as "mules" or "body packers" or, in some places, "higher angels."

In one case, the autopsy revealed 65 double-wrapped rubber balloons filled with heroin. One of the balloons split open where it had been tied. In the drug underground, the dead man's body was precious; it contained thousands of dollars in heroin, and apparently his family knew that. Smialek's report noted that, before the autopsy, some relatives showed up at the hospital demanding that they be allowed to remove the man's body.

In another case, also involving a Nigerian recently arrived in the United States, the medical examiner found 34 tan rubber sacks, each about 1 inch thick, knotted at one end.

A rupture at the ligature of one of the sacks caused the fatal overdose. The man was found in a motel room, another body washed up along the banks of the river.

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