O'Connor also desperately needed the money. She had started using cocaine again after being straight for three years, and her habit was costly -- she was behind on the rent for her $1,100-a-month apartment, and her daughter needed help with college tuition. It was more than she could support on her $30,000-a-year job as an office administrator, so the pitch from her dealer, Don, was appealing, in part because O'Connor had met other women who had successfully acted as mules. "I convinced myself I wouldn't get caught," she says. "Cocaine traffickers look for someone like me -- someone with a home, a good job, maybe someone who uses drugs, but not so much that they look like a junkie and have a criminal record, which would be a red flag at customs."
O'Connor left for her drug run on Nov. 10, 2001. On her return flight from Jamaica to Toronto a week later, while connecting through Charlotte, N.C., she was apprehended. Officials there had received an anonymous tip about her, and they found almost a kilogram of cocaine base -- a rock-like product obtained from the first stage of refining cocaine -- in fake bottoms and the pullout handles of her suitcases. The cocaine was intended for Canada or England, says O'Connor, who is now serving a 3 1/2-year sentence at the North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women in Raleigh. "I thought everything would be fine," she told Maclean's. "I was a fool."
O'Connor isn't alone. Drug traffickers' use of mules has skyrocketed after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, largely because heightened border security made it more difficult for dealers to deliver large narcotic shipments into North America and Europe. It's gotten so bad that the United Nations' Office on Drugs and Crime warned earlier this year that one in 10 passengers flying from Jamaica to the United Kingdom is a drug courier. Often drug mules are poor, single mothers. Jamaica, in particular, has become a popular transit point for Colombian heroin and cocaine; narcotics smugglers who are citizens of that island make up as much as nine per cent of England's female prison population.
There are no similar statistics for Canada, but there's plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that mules are carrying an increasing share of the estimated 20 tonnes of cocaine and two tonnes of heroin imported into the country annually. In May, a former Miss Guyana beauty pageant winner, Mia Rahaman, 23, was arrested as she arrived at Toronto's Pearson International Airport with $1 million worth of cocaine in her luggage. "The drug war is still very much ongoing," says RCMP Staff Sgt. Bill Matheson, commander of the Toronto Airport Drug Enforcement Unit. "We haven't backed off one iota in investigating trafficking, but we know a lot is still getting through."
The bulk of illegal narcotics is imported into Canada in larger-scale shipments coordinated by organized crime groups. Logistically challenging, these shipments tend to come in only a couple of times a year, says Matheson, whereas drug couriers offer the market a steady supply. Often, numerous mules will be placed on the same flight, a practice that has been dubbed "shotgunning." The theory is that if one mule gets caught, he or she diverts attention and the others go undetected.
Authorities say the vast majority of Canadian drug mules travel by airplane on flights that land at Pearson. The drugs are intended for Canadian cities as well as Europe and the United States. But Kash Heed, commander of the vice/drug section of the Vancouver police, says his officers are tracking more male mules who pick up cocaine arriving at the port of Vancouver for shipment into other parts of Canada and the U.S. Traffickers even recruit children to do their dirty work -- in 1998, several Honduran kids who had swallowed pellets of cocaine were hospitalized after arriving in Vancouver. The narcotic is usually wrapped in condoms or other plastic products and swallowed by drug mules. It's a dangerous practice: if an ingested package of heroin or cocaine bursts, it almost always results in death.
Most mules, desperate for money, enter the business willingly. But that isn't always the case -- police are increasingly learning of women who are forced into the drug trade. In 2000, the Supreme Court of Canada upheld a lower court ruling that found Marijana Ruzic not guilty of importing two kilograms of heroin into the country in 1994. Ruzic, who was a 21-year-old university student and model at the time of her crime, was recruited by a man in her home city of Belgrade. The man, likely a member of one of Eastern Europe's violent organized crime rings, notorious for drug and prostitution trafficking, threatened to kill Ruzic's mother if she didn't comply. Ruzic successfully proved that she acted under duress.
Jasent Callum, who is currently at the North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women serving a 7 1/2-year sentence for cocaine smuggling, tells a similar story. Callum, 54, flew to Jamaica, in early 2001 to care for her elderly mother, who had broken her hip. On her way to the airport to return to Toronto, she claims, she was kidnapped by drug traffickers and held for two days in a rural Montego Bay village. Her captors, who had taken her identification, threatened to harm her two teenage sons staying with a relative in Montreal if she didn't co-operate. "They said they had people in Montego Bay and Toronto who would help me through customs," says Callum. "They then held guns to my head and said that if I said anything, my kids would be killed."
Callum swallowed more than 700 grams of cocaine. Like Mary, she was then put on a flight that connected in Charlotte. On the trip, she didn't eat and she cradled her stomach, which was sore and swollen from the ingested drugs. "I tried to bring attention to myself," she says. "I couldn't turn myself in because someone was watching me." Without commenting on Callum's case directly, the RCMP's Matheson says her tale is similar to others he has heard. "There is a certain amount of gender control used with female drug mules," says Matheson. "They're often coerced in some way or another."
SMALL COTTAGES dot the sprawling tree-filled property of the North Carolina prison where O'Connor now serves time. In the mornings, she takes a horticulture course, and in the afternoons she helps out on the grounds, tending to the lush gardens. Of the more than 1,000 inmates here, 204 are incarcerated for drug offences. As we talk, we pass by a group of prisoners making hats that a non-profit halfway house will auction off in an effort to raise funds to build a facility for inmates with babies. (There are five pregnant women currently in the prison, and their children will be taken into permanent foster care within 24 hours of their birth unless a suitable family member can take them.) O'Connor prefers to be by herself, feeling the warm sun on her face. Her situation isn't that much different, she says, from when she was in Jamaica waiting to make her run. "I was imprisoned there, too," she explains. "Not in a real prison. I just couldn't leave. I couldn't change my mind."
When O'Connor was picked up on arrival in Montego Bay, she wasn't driven to the promised beachfront hotel, but to a gated villa in the countryside. Amid a Jamaican shantytown, the two-storey stucco building, with wrought iron gates, satellite TV and expensive surround-sound stereo, was strikingly out of place -- she figures it was owned by one of the island's drug barons. While there, O'Connor met other drug mules, including two teenage boys picking up cocaine they were taking to Miami.O'Connor ate gourmet food and had an unlimited supply of cocaine at her disposal -- but she wasn't allowed to leave the grounds.
Two days before she was scheduled to return to Toronto, the traffickers showed her how they wanted her to transport the cocaine. "They gave me a pill that would prevent me from going to the washroom and passing the drugs on the plane," she explains. "Then I was shown the cocaine wrapped in cellophane. I was to swallow one pellet, the size of my thumb, every 20 minutes. I wouldn't be allowed to eat, just a cracker and a few sips of water in between pellets. When I arrived in Toronto, someone would meet me at the airport, take me to a hotel and give me another pill to help me pass the drugs."
O'Connor had an upset stomach from some fish she'd eaten the day before, and couldn't swallow the cocaine even if she wanted to. Eventually the dealers allowed her to carry the drugs in her baggage, which a welder outfitted. On the morning of her departure, the traffickers changed her itinerary to North Carolina. "Maybe I was set up because I wasn't co-operating," she says. "Maybe I was a decoy so that other couriers could get through -- I don't know. I actually thought these guys would look after me."
Such economic realities were cited in a recent legal decision by Ontario Superior Court Judge Casey Hill, who sentenced two women, one of whom was Jamaican, to house arrest instead of prison for their roles as cocaine mules. Drug-trafficking penalties can carry a maximum sentence of life imprisonment, so Hill's decision, criticized by some as too lenient, is under appeal. Hill wrote that systemic issues of poverty and race influenced his decision. Pate says that the fastest growing segment of the prison population around the world is poor women. "Their crimes are directly linked to cuts in social programs, inadequate wages and lack of education," she adds.
That said, many mules are recruited because they are already linked to the drug underworld. Sarah and Penny (not their real names) were enticed into the trade while partying at an after-hours bar above a suburban Toronto auto-body shop. Its small room, usually reverberating with reggae, rap and hip-hop, accommodates about 60 people. Within minutes of arriving one night in 1998, they met a man called "Rasta" who, they found out later, was a dealer. They got to talking about their lives: Sarah's husband had just left her and she was supporting her two young children on a secretary's salary of $24,000 a year; Penny, a part-time factory worker who was then only 19, wanted to make some extra money so she could visit her ailing great-grandmother in Scotland.
The two women returned to the bar a few more times, and each time Rasta was a sympathetic listener. Within a month, he asked them to go to Jamaica to pick up some cocaine. Sarah was welcome to take her kids, he said. They'd get a vacation out of the deal and $3.50 for each gram of cocaine they brought back to Toronto. Sarah and Penny agreed to go, but asked very few questions about the business. "We didn't want to be in a position where we knew too much and could put ourselves or our families in danger," says Penny, who now works for a trucking company.
The contact person in Montego Bay was a man called "the Doctor." Penny, a large woman, could swallow more than 140 pellets of cocaine -- about 700 grams -- an asset for a drug mule. The Doctor also wanted some of his cocaine shipped into Miami; a month later, Penny and Sarah made two successful runs to that city. They were arrested by police on their third attempt; both were convicted and sentenced to 36 months in prison. "It looked like a good deal at the time," says Penny. "We were both young and all we were thinking about was the cash. Anything, including that $8-an-hour factory job, is better than sitting in prison and earning eight cents for cleaning toilets."
JANICE'S APARTMENT in her hometown of St. Catharines, Ont., is sparsely and inexpensively furnished (although Janice, a convicted drug mule, has served time in the United States, where her name is public information, she, like Penny and Sarah, agreed to talk to Maclean's on condition of anonymity, as they are all now legally employed in Canada). The 26-year-old, is watching The Maury Povich Show on cross-dressers. "I have a boyfriend now," Janice says, looking away from the TV. "I never thought anyone would want to be with me." Her life has come a long way since 1998, when she was convicted of trying to take 700 grams of cocaine into Miami and sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison. Janice, who just got a job as a cook in a fast-food restaurant, designs and sews many of her own clothes and she dreams of one day having her own label. "A woman at a hair salon sold two suits of mine once," she says proudly.
But there is a huge rift in her relationship with her daughter, Kaitlin (also not her real name). Janice has filled the eight-year-old's pink bedroom with stuffed animals, dolls and toys, as well as a stereo and TV. "She was this bebopping, outgoing, confident baby," says Janice, holding a black-and-white photo of the girl. After their forced separation, Kaitlin and her mother now fight constantly. "She's such an unhappy kid," says Janice. "No matter how much time I spend with her, she never smiles. She tells everyone what I did. She walks up to strangers and says, 'Hey, my mum was in jail for drug smuggling.' It could be her way of getting back at me, punishing me for not being there."
Janice, who left home at 13 because she was being physically abused by her stepdad, was a teen mother. She married Kaitlin's father, but he was living in Canada illegally and was deported home to Jamaica shortly after Kaitlin's birth. On welfare, Janice needed extra cash and began selling crack cocaine with a female friend she had met in her apartment building. "I never used the stuff," says Janice. "I wasn't even a partier. I wanted to be a lawyer. I wanted a car."
With some of her crack profits, Janice went on vacation to Jamaica so that Kaitlin, then 2, could see her dad. The night before they were to return home, a dealer proposed that Janice take some cocaine with her. She agreed and it was a smooth run, earning her $4,000. A few weeks later, she did it again -- "I was like, 'if I can do this, then I don't have to sell crack anymore.' " Janice made two more successful trips, transporting the drugs by swallowing them. On the third jaunt, she transferred airlines in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and was arrested as she disembarked. Janice thinks she was set up. "The other girls who were doing this slept with the guys who ran the show," she says. "I wouldn't, so I think they let me take a fall."
Kaitlin had been with her on the other runs. But this time, Janice had left her daughter in Toronto in the care of a drug dealer's girlfriend. Upon her arrest, the dealer, known to Janice only as "D," dropped the child off with Janice's cousin. "I've never been so scared in my life," she says. "By the time I was allowed to make a phone call, Kaitlin was safe, thank God. I was ill just thinking about it."
While Janice was in jail, the contents of her apartment, including about $15,000 in cash from her previous drug runs, were stolen. Kaitlin went to live with her grandmother in a farming community west of St. Catharines. Janice spent a total of 22 months in U.S. jails before being returned, as part of a bilateral prisoner-transfer program, to Canada to complete her sentence. Ever since, her relationship with Kaitlin has been strained. "No matter how much time I spend with her, she never smiles," says Janice. "All I wanted was a better life for me and Kaitlin. I made things so much worse."
IT'S A HUMID June day in Toronto and Kelly (not her real name) sips iced tea on a patio at an upscale bar in the city's business district, only a few kilometres away from the diner where her mother, Mary O'Connor, agreed to become a drug mule. The dark-haired, slim 23-year-old, who now works in public relations, has just finished filling out the Corrections Canada paperwork so that her mother can complete her sentence in Ontario.
Kelly was enrolled in criminology courses at Seneca College when her mother became a drug smuggler. She had known that Mary was back on drugs and in trouble. They were living together; Kelly opened a letter from the apartment superintendent stating that they owed $4,000 in back rent. "When I confronted mom, she said she'd have to go away for a while," says Kelly. "She said it was to get clean, but I knew she was going to do something bad. I asked her not to go. She said she was a big girl and could take care of herself."
After her arrest, O'Connor, fearful of further trouble with the drug ring, asked Kelly to move out of the apartment. Since then, a collection agency has been calling for the rent arrears. But Kelly, who had to drop out of school and take the PR job to make ends meet, is paying off her student loan and sending $40 a month to her mother in prison and can't settle the account. Now living with her father an hour-long commute west of Toronto, she has visited O'Connor in North Carolina three times. "I thought she was going to kill herself with the cocaine," says Kelly. "Where she is now sure has to be rock bottom." When Kelly asks her mother if she'll use cocaine again, though, O'Connor doesn't answer directly. She's already been through a drug rehab program.
O'Connor says she is finally looking at the root causes of her addiction, and plans to write a book about her experiences. "I take full responsibility for what I did," she says. "There are no excuses. I have street smarts and book smarts. Still, I let myself be duped." She hopes sharing that will keep other women from being lured into the drug underworld.
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