Drug traffickers are recruiting women by the hundreds to transport drugs from Bolivia to feed Chile’s growing consumer market.

They tempt impoverished, debt-ridden women, who are often the sole providers for their families, with offers of up to $1,000 to become “tragonas” (swallowers) or drug mules. And the countries’ poor relations coupled with the high demand for drugs mean this problem will likely only continue to grow.

Elena was 20 years old and raising two children aged one and three when she agreed to work as a tragona. Her youngest was still breastfeeding at the start of her trip in January 2018.

She left her children with her brother, who was 17 and would have to care for their seven-year-old brother in addition to his niece and nephew. Their brother was the reason Elena took the job.

*This article was originally published by Connectas. It was translated, edited for clarity and reprinted with permission, but does not necessarily reflect the views of InSight Crime. See the original version in Spanish here.

“I agreed to take the capsules because of the money. I needed it to buy a valve for my brother, who had severe malnutrition and couldn’t feed normally because of a congenital brain malformation,” she said.

Like most women whom drug traffickers use as human couriers, Elena is a single mother from the central Bolivian city of Cochabamba. At the time, she was earning 600 bolivianos (approximately $87) a month cleaning houses part-time. The traffickers promised her $1,000 to make the trip, the equivalent of 3.3 minimum monthly salaries in Bolivia and more than 10 times her own salary.

“They offered [the job] to me on the bus. I ran into a man from my hometown. He offered it to me. He said, ‘I do that kind of work. If you want, I’ll get you a job,’ and he gave me a number. He was older, and I had known him since I was a girl. I don’t know [if recruiting women was his job], but I believe so. I thought about it for three weeks, but he would pressure me, call me, ask me if I would accept the job. ‘Will you take it?’ And in the end, I accepted it because I needed to. I needed to do it for my brother.”


After her husband left, Celia Casorla lost custody of her children, and her problems with alcohol started. She also lost the motorcycle she used for her work as a taxi driver in Cochabamba.

“I felt bad. Empty. I needed my children. They didn’t want to talk to me. They ignored my calls, and I got into drinking. I drank and drank and drank for a whole year. The next year … the debts piled up. It got to the point where I couldn’t pay my rent. I just drank.”

Celia heard that she could earn good money as a mule, so one day she decided to contact a trafficker. She went to Cochabamba’s slums, asking, “Do you know anyone who works with Doña Blanca?” Until she met a man who offered her her first “contract.”

The drug trafficker took Celia to the Bolivian town of Pisiga, on the border with Chile. They made her swallow the capsules there.

“I couldn’t do it. I swear. It made me vomit. I couldn’t swallow it. It hurts your throat. And what did I say [to myself]? Since I couldn’t give anything to my children and I spent my time drinking, I would do it for my children, if for nothing else then for my children. Every time I couldn’t do it, I had to remember that. You know how to drink alcohol? Well, take this. And I took it. I couldn’t take it all, though. I still had about a quarter of a kilogram left. I couldn’t do it, and I told the guy, ‘Even if you don’t pay me for all of it, even half will help me, but I’m not going to take any more [capsules]. I can’t. My body doesn’t want it. I do, but my body doesn’t. What do you want me to do?’ ‘Okay,’ he said, ‘Let’s go, then.’”

A kilogram of pure cocaine costs about $2,200 in Bolivia. The tragonas — who swallow capsules full of the drug — and mules — who smuggle it in their luggage or in strips attached to their bodies — are paid $1,500 to carry that kilogram from Bolivia to Santiago de Chile. There, it is sold at $15 per gram, a profit for the drug traffickers of $15,000 per kilogram. But that is if they are selling pure cocaine; most of the time it is mixed with other substances like plaster of Paris or talcum powder to make even more money.

Statements the women gave in court proceedings in Chile have revealed that mafia guards sometimes accompany the transporters on the bus. In other instances, the traffickers take a picture of them at the bus terminal when they board and give them an old cell phone. When the transporter arrives at her destination, someone is there to pick her up and take her to a safe house.

30-year-old C.P.H. served a one-year prison sentence in Chile before being expelled from the country. In an excerpt from her court statement, she says, “I went to Oruro [in Bolivia] to buy fabric. A woman approached me and offered me a job transporting drugs to Iquique [in Chile]. They would wait for me at the terminal and pay me $300. The woman took a picture to remember what I looked like. I had to deliver the package to the same person at the terminal in Iquique.”

“I met a woman named Margarita in the Iquique terminal who gave me $1,000 and ‘100 chileans’ to take four packages of drugs to Calama. She bought the tickets, was waiting for me at the Calama terminal and took my picture with her cell phone,” according to a statement from E.R.L., 38 years old and sentenced to five years and one day of prison.


Francisca Fernández is an anthropologist and expert with the Public Defender’s Office (Defensoría Penal Pública – DPP), which had her conduct a study on the profiles of the foreign indigenous women serving prison sentences in the north of the country. For months she visited prisons and interviewed incarcerated women, mostly from Bolivia. In Fernández’s opinion, gangs treat the women like disposable materials.

“Three women are sitting together on a bus wearing the same new, white, high-heeled shoes. Obviously, they’re going to be searched,” the anthropologist says.

She believes they were planted to divert the police officers’ attention while an even larger shipment was smuggled in.

Fernández found that in several cases the setup was handled so crudely it was as if someone wanted the transporters to be discovered. The DPP believes it is possible that gangs are using poor people to concentrate police efforts in one place while they smuggle larger amounts of drugs in another. It is also entertaining the possibility that criminal groups are using a strategy known as the “False 22,” which refers to an article in Chile’s anti-drug trafficking law that allows for compensated cooperation. Drug traffickers use the law to get their sentences reduced.

A false 22 is a person who was hired to carry drugs without knowing that an already imprisoned drug trafficker will report it to the authorities in exchange for benefits from the law. The DPP has documented numerous cases of false 22s, such as one involving a farmer from Oruro who could only speak Quechua fluently and who was loaded with drugs in a hostel in the Chilean port city of Antofagasta. He was imprisoned for nine months.

Another case is one of the few involving a repeat offender. A Quechua woman has been in a Chilean prison for four years now serving a drug trafficking sentence, and according to the documents on her case, she has an intellectual disability and cannot read. Authorities discovered her smuggling drugs for the second time in 2014, at the customs checkpoint in Chile’s El Loa province. She had been traveling by bus, and because her first arrest occurred at the same checkpoint an official recognized her. She had hidden the cocaine in an electric pizza oven.

It is impossible to prove whether such cases are intentional distractions or not. But one thing is certain: so many women are arrested and so many drugs are confiscated that, if traffickers are still willing to go the route of tragonas and mules to send drugs south, it is because they are profiting enormously from it despite the arrests.

At the regional public defender’s office in Tarapacá, where the number of Bolivians arrested for drug trafficking is highest, research head Gabriel Carrión argues that Chile’s criminal policy does not focus on the owners of the drugs but on the minor players, who are disposable and hold no real power.

“Prosecutors are practical about their choice: they go after the ones carrying the drugs. And if you ask them about the people who own the drugs, they say it’s not in their jurisdiction because an international investigation would have to be carried out.”

While both the Chilean and Bolivian police have stated that they exchange information collected from the arrests of tragonas and mules, the attorney general’s office in Tarapacá acknowledged that no binational investigations have been carried out.

Regional prosecutor Raúl Arancibia said, “To date in the region we haven’t had drug trafficking investigations in which we worked with the Bolivian Attorney General’s Office.”

The bad blood between Chile and Bolivia goes back centuries, but the wounds are still fresh. Bolivia lost its territory on the Pacific coast to Chile in 19th-century War of the Pacific, and despite sharing a border 850 kilometers long, the two countries have not maintained diplomatic relations for the past 40 years. In March 1978 they withdrew their ambassadors, and four years ago Bolivia filed a claim with the International Court of Justice in The Hague to force Chile to the negotiating table about restoring Bolivia’s access to the sea.

The two countries scheduled a meeting on September 5 to discuss border issues, including efforts to combat drug trafficking, but Chile suspended it two days prior, claiming the conditions for the talks had not been met. One month later, on October 1, The Hague ruled against Bolivia on the issue. Since then, the leaders of both countries have been taking jabs at each other via social networks and the media, and no one has mentioned a bilateral agenda.


Simply being a Bolivian passenger on a bus in Chile causes suspicion and therefore ups the chances that the police will search you.

María Avendaño was stuck in a Chilean jail for two and a half years before she was acquitted.

In 2007 she as arrested on a bus near the border while she was traveling with her adult son. She was accused of owning a suitcase carrying men’s overalls and 23 kilograms of cocaine.

When the police found the suitcase in a routine search, they asked the bus attendant who it belonged to. He told them it belonged to María. She denied it. They did not believe her, and she was arrested.

According to the DPP, this case is an example of poor police work and police officers allowing prejudice to influence them.

“They didn’t lift any fingerprints or DNA samples from the luggage to tie the suspect to it,” the office explained in a document titled “The Innocence Project” (Proyecto Inocentes), which recounts the stories of people who were erroneously jailed in Chile.

The police let María’s son, a doctor, go free. But he had to stay in Chile to be near his mother. He worked in a pharmacy for two and half years before her trial and aquittal.


According to figures from the Tarapacá public defender’s office, 58% of the 180 Bolivian women sentenced in 2017 were indigenous. Most were sent to the prison in the city of Alto Hospicio, 230 kilometers from the Bolivian border.

Alto Hospicio is one of Chile’s poorest cities, ranking at number 76 out of 90 on the Urban Quality of Life Index managed by the Catholic University of Chile. The city was founded a series of land grabs in the upper area of another city — Iquique — and the two are connected by a lone road that snakes through the Cordillera de la Costa, the country’s coastal mountain range.

Unlike Iquique, Alto Hospicio is not a tourist destination but an industrial city. Despite the rugged landscape, Bolivian women who arrive at the prison have some advantages compared to those sent to other prisons.

First, there are more incarcerated Bolivians here than any other nationality, including Chilean, which means less discrimination from fellow inmates.

“They create compatriot communities,” said Gabriel Carrión, a lawyer with the DPP.

Another advantage is that the office created a specialized indigenous defense unit in Tarapacá, which provides interpreters in certain cases when the women do not speak Spanish.

Carrión, himself a Bolivian, explained that his office had to hire a specialized defense attorney and an intercultural facilitator. Both actions have helped to give the women access to the information they need and reduce case processing times.

“The Bolivian women generally follow the rules. They’re low profile, so much so that sometimes the violations go unnoticed,” he said.


When the authorities detained Elena, they took her to a container in front of the emergency unit of the Iquique regional hospital. She spent two nights there, passing the capsules.

She must have been sitting on a bench the entire time because the container did not have any stretchers to lie on. The authorities only gave her water and soup, no solids, which prevents the capsules from getting too dirty.

“It’s not just unpleasant for the detainees to be there,” said one policeman, “You have to take the capsules out of the toilet with gloves and wash them off. It smells horrible inside, especially when it’s really hot.”

While in the container, Elena saw four other detainees come and go, three men and one woman. All of them were Bolivians.

After she passed the last capsule, the authorities told Elena that she had the right to notify the Bolivian consulate of her situation so her family in Bolivia could be notified. Like most Bolivian citizens who get arrested in Chile, she opted not to. She had no visits or phone calls with them during the months she spent in Chilean prison.

“I asked the consulate not to tell my family. They would want to come, and I knew they didn’t have the money for it. That money was for my children and brother.”

Eventually, Elena received news from a single family member.

“I got a letter from Bolivia. A woman delivered it to me. I had sent a letter to her daughter. Her daughter spoke with my sister, and my sister sent me a letter with some money. She’s my older sister. In the letter she said that my younger brother, the one with the health condition, had died. [I was in prison] when I found out that my children were with her and my other brother too. My brother [who was ill] was like a son to me. He died on July 2.”

*This article was originally published by Connectas. It was translated, edited for clarity and reprinted with permission, but does not necessarily reflect the views of InSight Crime. See the original version in Spanish here.

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