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BRIEF

Why Traffickers Use Politicians, Celebrities to Brand Drugs

BRAZIL / 18 SEP 2020 BY LAURA CALDERÓN EN

From US President Donald Trump to Argentine soccer star Lionel Messi, well-known visages are used by drug gangs to not only mark their product but to stand out from the crowd.

Images of politicians appear to be a perennial favorite. This summer, a drug raid in São Paulo seized packets of cocaine bearing the face of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. The stickers were used to indicate to consumers that the drugs were of superior quality, according to police sources quoted by news portal UOL, although there was no real difference in purity.

In March 2019, Bolsonaro’s face was also found adorning marijuana packets sold in São Paulo.

Packets of marijuana with stickers of President Jair Bolsonaro found in São Paulo (Source: Brazilian Police)

Orange-tinged Donald Trump-shaped pills of ecstasy (often referred to as its chemical acronym MDMA) have surfaced in various countries. First seized in 2017 in Germany, pills in Trump's likeness were discovered in the United States in 2019, and in Chile and the United Kingdom this year.

It is unknown if these were the work of one manufacturer or several, but some appear to have been produced in the Netherlands. A British police spokesman told the Guardian after the most recent seizure that "the Donald Trumps are dangerous tablets that contain extremely high levels of MDMA and could put anyone taking these in serious harm."

SEE ALSO: Coverage of NarcoCulture

The political leaders change with the times. In 2009, then-US President Barack Obama also saw his face stamped on ecstasy pills.

A large number of marijuana packets with the face of Pablo Escobar was found in Cauca, Colombia in 2019. (Source: Cauca Police)
The late Colombian kingpin Pablo Escobar (Source: Cauca Police)

Infamous faces also have been used, like Osama Bin Laden, the Al Qaeda leader and mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. In 2019, police seized nearly two tons of “creepy” marijuana packages in Colombia bearing the photos of Medellín Cartel kingpin Pablo Escobar. Cauca police commander Fabio Alexander Rojas García told the press that the Escobar “brand” was used by groups “to catalogue and sell” the drugs.

Cocaine packets caught in Callao, Peru, with the image and name of Lionel Messi (Source: Peruvian Police)

Athletes and singers have also been favoured. Soccer star Lionel Messi decorated a large cocaine shipment found in Peru’s port of Callao that was bound for Belgium in 2017. Though his image is popularly associated with cannabis, Bob Marley appeared on cocaine seized in Paraguay in June this year.

InSight Crime Analysis

Though the technique of using unique stamps to identify drug packages emerged in the time of Pablo Escobar and is primarily for logistics, the use of famous faces also provides a certain cultural cachet and irony.

At a time when record amounts of cocaine are being produced, drug trafficking groups can rely on these markers to distinguish their product from from that of rivals. In some cases, they help those handling the drugs to guarantee the place of origin or the destination of a shipment.

SEE ALSO: Mexico, Colombia Drug Raids Reveal Human Skulls, Saints, and Spells

But this strategy can backfire. These markers have also helped authorities track specific drug trafficking gangs with greater ease. “We are seeing a series of dolphins always appearing on drugs seized in Bolivia. These dolphins ... are reappearing on seizures outside the country, so we see that there is a network operating in this area,” Thierry Rostan, representative for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in Bolivia, told local media last February.

Another senior Bolivian police officer told the press that such marks were also placed on drug shipments from different groups when drugs were stored together.

For synthetic drugs, the use of celebrity images can also boost sales.

According to a Daily Mail report, the Donald Trump ecstasy tablets proved particularly popular among UK party-goers for their shape.

“It’s getting to be a game of 'who’s got the coolest pill,'" one source told the paper.

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