'Mules' take deadly gamble smuggling heroin in their stomachs


October 03, 1994|By DAN RODRICKS

On the street, they're known as "mules," or "body packers," or, in some places, "higher angels." Officially, they're known as "alimentary canal drug smugglers." They're also known as stupid. And sometimes they're known as dead. They are the men and sometimes women who transport heroin into the United States by swallowing small balloons or capsules filled with the drug. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.

About a year ago, a 43-year-old man from Nigeria collapsed and died in South Baltimore, and the autopsy showed a large amount of high-grade heroin packed inside 38 small cylindrical capsules inside his stomach and intestine. One of the capsules in his stomach had ruptured at some point during the man's trip from Nigeria through New York to Baltimore.

In a similar case in Maryland several years earlier, an autopsy of a drug courier revealed 65 double-wrapped rubber balloons filled with heroin. One of the balloons split open where it had been tied. The dead man's body was valuable; it contained thousands of dollars in heroin, and apparently his family knew that. Before the autopsy, some relatives showed up at the hospital demanding they be allowed to remove the man's body.

The U.S. Customs Service is well aware of the practice and apparently its agents sometimes use body X-rays to locate the mules among international travelers. That might have saved the life of a Maryland man who wound up in federal court in Philadelphia last week.

"You should have your head examined for putting heroin in your stomach," U.S. District Judge James Giles told Raphael Nzelibe, who had entered the United States from Nigeria carrying 30 parcels of heroin in his stomach. Customs agents found the drugs by X-raying his belly. At his sentencing, Nzelibe appealed for clemency, telling the judge his health was deteriorating and that he had developed memory loss.

"How long have you been suffering from memory loss?" the judge asked.

"I can't remember," Nzelibe replied.

Giles sentenced Nzelibe to 63 years in prison for the crime.

I'll have regular

Regarding the item in last Wednesday's column about disgusting gas station restrooms: If you know of a chronically foul one, call (332-6166) or drop a note to This Just In, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore 21278. Please, no more boasts about "sparkling clean" restrooms. We're looking for filth. And, before I forget: I wrote that some service station operators are "slobs who could care less" about their restrooms. I meant to say they could not care less.

One other thing: I'm advised of a certain Baltimore County service station owner with an interesting practice. He reserves a clean, well-lighted restroom for regular customers, a squalid one for motorists who just pass through and don't buy gasoline. What a guy.

Take your blessings

Unsigned letter received (with $5 enclosed) by Albert Kirchmayr, master chocolatier, after last Monday's column on his efforts to recoup $19,000 in customer checks stolen from his unlocked car last Christmas:

"I never heard of you until I read [This Just In, Sept. 26]. I lost my business when people didn't pay me. I know the heartache and the pain that goes with that kind of loss. I also know the long hours, the pride of a job well done, the care of employees, and the gut-rocking stab of loss when you're not paid. I'm glad that you've recouped some of your money. Forty-five percent [recovery] covers what? Taxes? Unemployment insurance? What about the rest of your overhead, not to mention profit? [Five dollars] isn't much, but it's what I can do. And you're right. You should have accepted some offers [of money, loans]. There is a need to be able to help, to do one small thing. It is just as much a gift and a blessing to be able to accept as it is to be able to give. . . . God bless. And keep those doors locked!"

Faulting pollution foe

I see where four major business groups have knocked Perry Sfikas, winner of the Democratic primary for the state Senate in the 46th District, for a campaign commercial that mentioned industrial pollution in East Baltimore. Sfikas' radio ad had pounded a primary opponent for not supporting anti-pollution measures while he served in the General Assembly and suggested new leadership was needed to reduce the "poison" in East Baltimore.

So what's the beef? "We thought it was something of an indictment of business," said Donald P. Hutchinson, president of the Greater Baltimore Committee. "We thought it was unfortunate because job creation ought to be of primary import to any elected official in Baltimore."

Hutch is correct about the need for jobs, but, come on, economic development and clean air are not mutually exclusive. Both -- not one more than the other -- are key ingredients to what is known as "quality of life," and you can ask anyone who lives near an incinerator or heavy truck traffic. A lot of them call the 46th home, and they vote. They elected Sfikas by a 2-to-1 ratio.

The reactions of the GBC and the other business organizations to Sfikas' ad remind me of then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer's angry and dim reaction to a comprehensive series on industrial pollution and Baltimore's cancer rate in The Sun some 15 years ago.

At a news conference, he derisively waved clips of the series in the air and criticized this newspaper for its "anti-business" attitude.

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