A stomach-turning way of smuggling cocaine is clogging up local prisons in Peru, as officials warn the life-threatening method is attracting more and more foreigners.
The so-called drug mules -- people who ingest narcotics in a malleable capsule, often condoms or another kind of wrapping, to transport them across borders undetected -- are increasingly coming from abroad to this South American country, and often end up getting caught or killed in the process.
"We're extremely concerned," Carmen Masias, Peru's anti-drugs czar, told Agence France Presse. "The problem has worsened over the past five years, coming from new countries and revealing fresh traffic routes such as Africa."
Recent incidents have highlighted the problem, which also poses serious health risks for the mules themselves.
In January, an Australian citizen died after swallowing 23 capsules of cocaine, when one of them burst in his stomach as he waited for his flight leaving Lima's international airport.
"Once the cocaine capsules have been swallowed, time is of the essence," a police source told AFP. On trans-Atlantic flights of 12 or 13 hours, an overdose "can happen at any moment," he added.
The statistics are staggering: in 2011, 350 mules were arrested at Lima's airport, with 200 of them foreign nationals, police said.
A year earlier, 480 arrests were made -- 320 of those taken into custody were non-Peruvians.
In Peruvian prisons, 1,100 foreigners, including 300 Spaniards, are currently behind bars, 90 percent of them for drug trafficking.
Despite the high arrest figures, however, officials acknowledge privately that many of the traffickers could be slipping through their net, and that it is difficult to quantify the actual number of offenders.
Those found guilty of the crime face between six and 12 years in prison if operating on their own. But if linked to an international drug-trafficking network, offenders can be sentenced to up to 20 years.
Damian, a French national who declined to give his last name, revealed to AFP the stories of mules after spending a recent stint in a Peruvian prison alongside them.
Over the course of eight months squeezed into a tiny cell together with 350 others, the 27-year-old, who had been finally cleared of trafficking suspicions himself, said their main motivation was often money.
"The basic story is these guys had no money in Europe, found themselves on the streets and then someone offered to pay them 3,000 or 5,000 euros (around $4,000-$6,600) for a round trip," Damian told AFP.
Sometimes, he said, individuals are simply tricked or threatened into becoming mules. On other occasions, even their loved ones are targeted to force them into trafficking.
"Hardly anyone chooses to become a mule," another police source told AFP. "More often than not, the mule is a victim, someone who has a knife at his throat."
Authorities struggling to put a stop to the ominous practice are noticing subtle changes in an effort to throw investigators off course.
"The latest thing is not so much hiding the drug but making it unrecognizable by mixing it with other substances" such as wine or shampoo, Lima prosecutor Guillermo Sandoval said.
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