Struggle for everyday survival that forces women to risk the dangers of the drug run
In the first part of our major investigation of women cocaine mules from the Caribbean, we exposed the staggering impact on the already overcrowded British prison system. Today Audrey Gillan travels to Kingston, Jamaica, to uncover the terrible price paid by the women's families and the desperation
Wednesday October 1, 2003
The holes in the clapboard walls have been patched with card, as have the gaps in the corrugated iron roof. The rainy season has begun and soon the inside of the shack will be soaking.
It is all Barbara Thompson can think of as she sits in her spartan but dry cell in Lincolnshire's Morton Hall prison. In a ghetto in Kingston, Jamaica, her children have been left behind in what she describes as her "shitty cardboard house".
Like hundreds of other children across the city whose mothers have been jailed in Britain for being drug mules, they are struggling to get on with daily life without her while she serves her sentence.
The Guardian travelled to Jamaica to discover what compels women like Thompson to stuff their stomachs full of cocaine-filled packets and board a plane to London.
The answer lies in their lives of poverty and desperation, where a lack of a welfare state brings a daily struggle to feed, clothe and educate children.
Some women did it because family members required essential operations, one needed to build a toilet and install running water and another was forced to do it at gunpoint by local gangsters. None of them considered that they would end up in prison thousands of miles from home.
Thompson's five boys and one girl are comparatively lucky - four of them are being looked after by their father. Most children whose mothers have been jailed are left to fend for themselves as the majority of drug couriers are single mothers. Often when the mothers return their children are unrecognisable.
The two-roomed shack Thompson talks of lies at the end of a narrow pathway and is towered over by a breadfruit tree, a godsend for the food it provides the children.
Visitors must be met and walked into the ghetto by Thompson's former partner, Benjamin Banks, because the place is so dangerous.
Inside each tiny room is a double mattress; in one room there is a fridge and an old cooker and in another a television and stereo, neither of which works. It is 6.30am and Mr Banks is making a meagre breakfast and getting the children ready for school. He says he won't take responsibility for Thompson's other children because they have another father.
Mr Banks says he did not know his wife was about to try to smuggle drugs to the UK. He had been out of town buying peppermint when she disappeared, leaving the children with a neighbour. The only person she told was her stepfather, who advised her not to do it.
"She was trying to better her life," he said. "When I heard the news that she was in prison I nearly collapsed because straight away I realised she hadn't left anything behind and I would have to take responsibility for four children."
The shock was quickly replaced by fear as the trafficking gang started calling to find out what had happened to their drugs.
"They said that they had not heard from her. They asked what happened and I said I didn't know anything about it. I am afraid that anything could happen when she comes back. What happens when they come calling with their guns? Here, they don't care; they will shoot everybody."
Mr Banks says the children know their mother is in prison and often they cry about it. The overriding problem is money.
He has a handcart and walks the streets in the hope that people will give him something to deliver in return for around 50 Jamaican dollars, about 60p.
"I would like my children to go to school because I wasn't educated but right now finding the money is really difficult," he said. "I want to make sure my children get some form of education but in Jamaica we have to pay and I can't."
The children have been sent home with letters saying that if they do not bring the right schoolbooks by the end of September they will be forced to leave.
In Spanish Town, Jamaica's former capital, Mandy Turner, 22, has to look after six children: two are hers but four are her mother's, who is currently in Holloway prison. Recently she found one of her little brothers trying to hang himself from a rope in the one-roomed house in which they all live.
"He is only 11. He thought that if he died his mother would come home to look for him like people do when they come back to Jamaica for funerals. He didn't really realise that in order for her to come back he would have to die or even if he did, she wouldn't be able to come back because she is in prison," explained Ms Turner, standing in the humid yard of the house she rents at the back of a slaughterhouse. Filth, blood and flies are everywhere but it is all she can afford since her last house was destroyed in a fire.
Hibiscus, a British organisation working with Jamaican prisoners and their families, is attempting to help Ms Turner, and women like grandmother Pearl Foster, whose daughter is serving four years and 10 months. The charity is trying to build her a toilet; she is living without running water.
"If you had to live in this you might well be tempted to take drugs to Britain, too," said Olga Heaven, the charity's director. "It is women who haven't got any choices. These are not professional couriers. These are first-time offenders who don't drink, don't smoke; God-fearing women who have never done anything wrong in their life."
A Hibiscus poster campaign tries to explain what really happens to the drug mules when they get caught. The cartoon images are meant to appeal to the poorly educated women who end up as mules.
Despite television, radio and other campaigns - much of it funded by the British - it is still difficult to get the message across. For too many the £1,000 they could earn from just one trip would be enough to change their lives forever.
Peter Mathers, the British high commissioner in Jamaica, acknowledges that the number of women in British prisons from Jamaica is "horrifyingly high". His team is looking into further ways of spreading the message among potential recruits, telling them that they could end up in the same place. He acknowledges that couriers are still getting through.
The Caribbean does not produce cocaine but is a handy stopping-off point for the drug as it makes it way from Colombia to its destination market.
On average a person's stomach can carry up to 500 grams of cocaine. British customs admit that compared with the two to three tonnes that drug traffickers are regularly moving around, this is small game. But the business is a drain on its resources as well as on the British prison system.
At Norman Manley airport in Kingston they are taking steps to deal with the problem. After 20 drug mules were found on one aeroplane last year, the British and Jamaican governments decided to act, launching a joint initiative called Operation Airbridge.
Sergeant Conrad Brown of Jamaica's narcotics police is eyeing up passengers as they and their hand baggage pass through the security x-ray machines. His first tool is profiling and he is watching for people who have been travelling back and forward to the UK regularly.
"You see someone that's a carpenter and you see that they have gone to England three times, that's not saying anything conclusive but it is saying 'give this person a check'," he explained.
The British government has funded new equipment at the airport which detects traces of drugs on passengers' passports or clothes. If any trace is found the passenger is submitted to a urine test.
"This person could have been in an environment where drugs were being used, or they could have been packing it, or they could have used it. Within that reading it doesn't say anything definitely," Sgt Brown said.
Catching the mules is a time- and resource-consuming business - officers have to spend 24 hours a day with each mule until all the drugs have passed through their system to ensure that they do not die. One said: "We have had a courier in our custody and it has taken 50 days for the drug to pass through their system."
Derek Braden, head of customs drug policy, said: "I guess we could have tried to stop everybody coming through but all that would have done is filled the prisons with more people.
"The whole aim of Airbridge is to try to get to the people and pressure them not to do it," he said.
But however innovative the machine is, the Guardian has been told that it is only used about seven times a day and often for training purposes. It is having teething troubles.
The Home Office's decision to introduce a visa requirement for all Jamaicans entering the UK appears to have had more immediate success.
British officials deny that the measure was a direct response to the drug mule problem, but Jamaican narcotics officers say their workload has decreased significantly.
"The type of people who used to travel as smugglers, we don't see them travelling as much now," one said. "I don't think it likely that they would qualify for a visa."
The combination of Operation Airbridge and the visa requirements have started to cut the flow of couriers from Jamaica, and the British government is now installing the detection machines on seven other islands.
But as evidence emerges that the traffickers are moving their operations elsewhere in the Caribbean, the real test for governments in both Jamaica and Britain will be to cut off the supply of women desperate enough to risk everything on a flight to London.
All the names of the women prisoners and those of their families have been changed
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