At Paris' Orly airport, a daily duel between customs and Guiana drug mules
Orly (France) (AFP)
Every day they come. Drug mules from French Guiana in South America, carrying cocaine in their luggage or their stomachs, playing a cat-and-mouse game with customs officials at Paris' Orly airport.
Some get caught. Some do not. The risks are high, but they have little to lose.
In the customs office, 31-year-old "Henriette" waits on a plastic chair. Her name, and those of other mules in this report, have been changed to protect their identities.
Arrested on arrival in Paris, Henriette sits with her arms folded, head hanging, expressionless. Next to her, a large pink suitcase in which a scan revealed suspicious dark shapes.
An agent opens the case. "There are only T-shirts... it's autumn here Madam..." she enquires.
But Henriette, sporting a black T-shirt, does not reply: she does not speak a word of French, only one of a clutch of local languages used in Guiana, a French overseas department.
The agent pulls out seven packets marked as containing Asian seaweed.
"This is not complicated: It should be light and soft, but it is compact and weighs more than a kilo," says an agent with a sceptical air who goes on to unwrap the packages and remove their outer layers of algae to reveal black, brick-shaped parcels.
Officers had detained Henriette because her hands were trembling as she gripped the handlebar of her luggage trolley.
Jean-Pierre, 21, was brought in because he had a "robotic gait" typical of people who tape cocaine bullets to their thighs or insert it into their rectums.
- Shorts in winter -
Other giveaways? "Some wear shorts in winter, they do not know who is fetching them at the airport, or they say they're going to Toulouse (700 kilometres or 440 miles away)... by taxi," said customs official Olivier Gourdon.
The Cayenne-Orly route, with two incoming flights per day, has become the most popular air passage for South American cocaine to France.
Last year, 1,349 mules in or from Guiana were arrested, double the 2017 number, police data shows.
With an estimated eight to ten smugglers per flight, the drug gangs are trying to "saturate the control capacities" of French customs, said Gourdon.
Some among the mules are "sacrificed".
They are given only hand luggage which means they will go through customs first, with only a bit of product, poorly disguised.
Sometimes they are given up in an anonymous call -- all to distract customs officials while those with the bigger hauls slip through.
While Jean-Pierre puts up a fuss, shouting and swearing at officers, Henriette bats not an eyelid as a knife plunges into one of the black bricks she carried, leaving a trail of white powder.
Costing about 5,000 euros ($5,500) in Guiana, a kilogramme (2,200 pounds) of the drug is sold for seven times that in France to dealers who can double their investment by hawking to individual clients.
Henriette was carrying eight kilogrammes.
- Death is 'rapid' -
Sometimes, the smugglers are made to ingest their cargo.
If caught, they are brought to the Hotel-Dieu hospital in Paris where they pass, under supervision, the drug-filled bullets they swallowed.
Nine rooms are reserved for this laborious and undignified task, under the watchful eye of doctors, police and lawyers.
After three days and with the help of a pink laxative gel, 26-year-old Sylvain has expelled all 49 cocaine pellets he had in his body, crouched over a toilet bowl with no flush mechanism.
Long gone are the days of swallowing cocaine stuffed into condoms -- today's smugglers have gone high-tech. All the Guiana pods are the same: small, black, heat-sealed capsules about three centimetres (1.2 inches) wide.
As the packaging material has improved, fatal accidents from burst cocaine pods have decreased: two in France in the last 10 years.
"When a pod bursts, it (death) is extremely rapid," said Nicolas Soussy, head of the hospital's medical-judicial department.
- No understanding -
Those willing to risk their health, lives and future are mainly poor, unemployed Guianans in their 20s with "no understanding of the death risk," recounts a nurse who has heard many stories.
Mules often talk about how hard it was to swallow the pods, with the aid of a lubricant in the throat.
And for what? A few thousand euros of the potential goldmine in their bellies.
At the court of Creteil outside Paris, which has jurisdiction over the Orly airport region, at least two or three smugglers appear every day.
The court generally imposes a sentence of about one year per kilo of cocaine smuggled, but even this is no deterrent.
With a 22-percent unemployment rate in Guiana -- rising to 44 percent among 18- to 24-year-olds, there is no shortage of replacements for captured mules.
On a given day, 28-year-old tile-layer Thierry is one of three people in the dock.
He was arrested with two kilos of cocaine hidden in his underwear, his shoes, his suitcase and his stomach, which contained 76 pods.
"Is it the first time you did this?" asked the judge.
"You did return trips in October, November and December 2018, and in April, May and June 2019," the presiding officer continued.
"I went to visit my mother."
Thierry got a two-year sentence.
Next in line is Henriette, wiping her eyes on the same black T-shirt she wore when she was arrested.
She has never been to school and survives on state handouts.
As the judge talks of the dangers of cocaine to French society, Henriette's lawyer highlights the misery of Guiana's "neglected" youth.
A lenient punishment for her eight kilos: Henriette gets two years' jail time at the prison of Fresnes south of Paris, where half the inmates are female Guianan drug mules.
Three months pregnant, and with eight other children in Guiana, she will give birth in prison, far from home.
Â© 2019 AFP