The arrest of a group of women smuggling cocaine at a Colombian airport highlights the continuing use of human couriers to move drugs by plane – a decades-old strategy that has helped land thousands of women in jail.
Colombia authorities arrested five women at an airport in Barranquilla on March 4 after discovering approximately 16 kilograms of cocaine hidden inside fake pregnancy bellies worn by the detainees as they awaited a flight, according to press reports and Barranquilla police.
After discovering cocaine inside one of the seemingly pregnant women's prosthetic bellies, police suspended the flight and detained four additional women employing the same method to conceal drugs, according to Semana. The five women face charges of drug trafficking and possession of narcotics, Semana reported.
The arrests came less than a month after police in the department of Santander, south of Barranquilla, detained three women attempting to smuggle cocaine and marijuana into a local prison by hiding the drugs inside their genitalia.
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Back in 2020, Colombian authorities prosecuted a criminal group accused of injecting liquid cocaine into prosthetic implants placed inside the legs and breasts of female drug couriers flying to Europe.
The use of couriers, often referred to as "drug mules," is widespread in Latin America, with men as well as women being recruited in vast numbers. Drug rings typically target young women who ingest narcotics packaged in condoms, polyethylene or latex before boarding a flight. Alternatively, couriers conceal drugs by strapping packages to different body parts, hiding narcotics inside their genitalia, or simply by stashing illicit substances in suitcases.
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Though women play diverse roles in the drug trade, from growing coca leaves to spearheading criminal organizations, the arrests in Barranquilla highlight how they routinely serve as low-level couriers for drug rings – a highly visible and risky job that has contributed to mass female drug detentions in Colombia and the wider region.
Between 1991 and 2018, the number of women jailed in Colombia shot up by 429 percent, from 1,500 to 7,944, according to a report by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Almost half of these women were detained for crimes linked to the manufacture, trafficking or transport of small quantities of drugs.
The dramatic increase of women jailed for drug-related crimes is not limited to Colombia, rather: “In the majority of Latin American countries, drug-related crimes are the main cause of female incarceration,” according to a 2020 report by the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).
“In Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Peru and Venezuela, drug-related offenses are the most common for female prisoners,” as per the WOLA report.
In Peru, for instance, authorities recently arrested a 61-year-old woman attempting to smuggle cocaine-stuffed olives into a local prison. Last year, in Paraguay, authorities at the country's main airport detained a woman attempting to board a flight to Spain with three kilograms of cocaine in her suitcase.