A Drugs Courier's Tale
The Observer 25-07-1993
Emma's life is in danger not only from the drugs she uses but from people who are threatening to kill her over a 'delivery' that has gone wrong...
Emma was just seventeen when she did her first drugs run from Marseilles to London. She's still not sure if she was carrying coke or heroin in her bags on a coach crossing from Calais to Dover.
She was recruited by a family friend and admits she was a perfect candidate. Slim, blonde, pretty and apparently naive, she was a born manipulator.
"If I was choosing a courier I would choose a non-drug-user, someone very young or someone very old who looks stupid. Someone like me. Very cheeky. That's how I get away with it! I wasn't a user then except for hash of course. Everyone uses hash. I knew what I was doing but I didn't know about heroin at that time."
"The friend asked me if I wanted to earn some money. Fifteen thousand is a lot of money to a seventeen year-old in one lump sum. £5000 before you go, £2,000 on expenses and £10,000 when the goods were delivered."
"I had to go to France, pick up a package, not knowing what the package was. I took a bus trip and spent 10 days there to make it look as if it was my holiday. I carried it in my rucksack. I came back on the bus. I think it must have been about five kilos. I didn't look to see. You don't!"
Her friends had great trust in her:
"They don't just use anybody. And if you play with fire you have to expect to get burnt. They trusted me. They knew my temperament and my family. And the guy I was working for had perfect cover as a builder. No-one would have known he was into this."
The first run was effortless:
"I went in and out through Calais because it's easy. They don't even check your passport or look at your bags."
"I felt OK when I was doing it. I completely forgot about it. What the eye doesn't see... Back in London I just handed it over after I'd seen the money."
"I spent it on clothes and an expensive life. My rent was £1,500 a month and I'd go to London clubs and buy clothes £200 for a pair of shoes and underwear. My lingerie was all lace and silk. I had a lot of gold very flash."
Heady stuff for the suburban working-class daughter of a struggling single-parent mother. Four years later the fresh-faced youngster who admits she found crime and criminals rather glamourous is unrecognisable. After a series of major couriering runs, Emma is now an addict.
"I would advise any 16 or 17 year-old not to do it," she says wearily.
When we spoke she was in fact fearing for her life. Haggard and gaunt she admitted she hadn't a penny left from the tens of thousands she claims to have made. Worse still she hadn't anyone in the world to turn to apart from the feckless boyfriend who helped her to become an addict.
It was the classic mistake. As soon as she was a user she needed money but her chances of getting away with another drug-run were slim:
"Some people are out to get me now because I pulled out of a deal. I backed out. I'd 'bought' some stuff, without paying, in return for doing a run. But I backed out. Now they want their money back."
"If I did one couriering job now I could solve all my problems but I'd get caught because of my appearance, my attitude. I've considered ways of solving the problem in ways that I would never have imagined prostitution, robbing banks, robbing post-offices, jewellers, everything. I haven't done it because it isn't me. I suppose I've still just got a grip on who I am and what I want to be."
"I'm learning every day you can't trust people. The world is full of sharks. Somebody can pull a gun out on you over £1,000."
But four years ago it all seemed so different:
"After the Marseilles job I took off to Teneriffe with my money. I was out of my depth, mixing with a completely separate drug-couriering community."
A few months later Emma started helping her new Teneriffe friends on the Morocco hash runs:
"It's a small circle headed by a big man who lives in Holland. I know his name but I don't know him personally. His son is a very famous household name. Most of the ultimate buyers are in London. The wife trusted me with knowledge of their business, running coke from Brazil to Holland, mostly by ship, and hash from Morocco."
"They were transporting hundreds of kilos of hash at a time. I did three trips like this from Morocco to Marbella, always at night because it's less likely you'll get stopped. I was just sitting on boats 20-30 metre Maximaces which was very dangerous because you have a high risk of being shot."
"There were usually five of us on board. The stuff was packed up in taped kilos in suitcases. Everyone on the boat knew what was going on. We just went out looking as if we were having fun for the day water skiing. I was there to make it look normal if the coast-guard came along. Once we were stopped and I had to go out to see them. I was near enough shitting myself. They had guns. I just showed them the papers."
Lucky each time, she claims she was paid anything from £10,000 to £20,000 per trip and more for carrying it further the other end.
"At the Morocco end I had to check that it was all right not bricks or something. I didn't have to pay for the stuff it had already been paid for in advance on the farm."
"I felt very scared doing this scared of being caught. But what the eye doesn't see ..."
These were the best days, moving easily on the fringes of the big league drug barons. She was privy to a lot of secrets and felt, perhaps for the first time in her life, that she belonged. To this day the figures involved trip off her tongue almost with pride and a sense of glamour:
"I enjoyed the danger the power and influence over people. People are impressed by the people I know in the business."
While an average Observer reader might earn £25,000 a year a courier can earn a year's salary on one run and the owners of the drugs can make ten or twenty times that amount. If she had been caught she might have gone down for about five years, in which case she would have kept just the up-front money.
"If I got caught I'd think it was just bad luck that I'd been grassed on, been stupid and slipped up."
"It's true that I'm the person who has been taking all the risks so far and the people I carry for make 10 times the value of what I bring in. If I had kept all the money I've made I could be organising my own runs."
Like most couriers Emma has been told by the barons that if she's caught the dealers will look after her.
Amazingly, she believes them.
"If I was to go down and I kept my mouth shut I'd be looked after. I'd have money put in the bank every month and a lump sum would be given to my mum and they would pay my legal fees. That's my security for keeping my mouth shut. If they didn't put that money in the bank, God help them!"
The truth is that she's in deep, deep trouble now but doesn't seem to realise that the barons have not stood by her. She's realistic about her own obligations however.
If she talks, she says, she'll get dropped in the Thames with her legs wrapped in chains. She knows people who have been shot in Spain and who've been maimed for life in Britain.
But Emma still had a little of the good time left before disaster struck. After Spain she returned to London, finding herself for the first time working with smart London barons, but getting closer to the end-users and the risks of becoming a user herself:
"These are serious people. There are millions of pounds involved. They know what's going on. Most of them are English businessmen people from the City, stockbrokers, lawyers. But some of them are people who spend hundreds of thousands on coke themselves and with their wives and friends. I know one group which was planning to front a £2 £2.5 million run (perhaps 500 kilos) which may be the whole deal or just part of a deal. It will probably be stuff from Brazil flown over in a private jet which could land at a private airfield."
All this was now a long way from the more professional-sounding foreign dealers she had worked for before:
"One of those people wouldn't even let me be a courier for him. I was family. It's like the mafia: they may earn a living from a prostitute but they'd never go with her. And a professional drug-dealer would never ever use the stuff. They're too sensible."
Not so her new London friends:
"My last job was carrying stuff from Spain to the UK. I had 20 kilos of hash which was half of my payment and about 5 kilos of coke. I was able to sell my 20 kilos of hash, of course and got £20,000 for the job."
The job involved getting through Heathrow which Emma seems to think is very easy and will become easier still as from this year thanks to the new EC regulations:
"I left booby-traps on my bags. I threaded a hair through the two zips. If the hair's broken it's been opened. That never happened to me but if it did I would just let it go round and round the carousel I wouldn't touch it. The customs is really that easy. The customs won't stop you unless they have a good reason to. At the other end (abroad) I'm very careful. Sometimes I sit on my stuff for up to two weeks and then come back my own way and deliver to the address this end. You'd know if you're being followed you'd know I've never been caught up to now."
But by now she was in love and disaster loomed:
"The tragedy in my case is that I went out with a drug-dealer who was actually a user."
"I'm responsible. My youth has been wrecked but I'm to blame."
"Soon after that last trip I started having an awful time with my boyfriend and I started using myself. I couldn't do any more jobs then not looking the way I do. From the way I look and act I would be spotted immediately. My couriering days are over."
"Using has changed me my appearance, my attitude, my way of thinking. I haven't got as much confidence as I used to have. I never used to think about being pretty and stuff. I wasn't worried about that. I was me. Now you say I'm obsessed about my looks. Am I?"
"I got started on using because of low self-esteem. I got on heroin because my boyfriend was using it. He encouraged me to use it and it's ruined me. He's stupid. He hasn't really got a brain. We were planning to go into business ourselves. Like all junkies he wanted to bring everyone down to his level including me. At the time I wasn't feeling good about myself. When you're using you're taking ounces and before you know it three or four days have gone by and you haven't even been to bed not even moved apart from getting water or cigarettes."
"My boyfriend was buying from the kilo stage, buying a quarter of a kilo or half a kilo and they cut it before he gets it because he's using it himself and they know that. He can sell about a quarter of a kilo in a week and he pays about £1,100 per ounce and he can double his money when he sells. He never used to cut it but now he's using it himself he does."
"You're exactly right, I don't think he was trying to ruin me because I was supposed to be going to do this job a few weeks ago. Then I couldn't. You see , I've never had a boyfriend before. In the whole time I been couriering I've never had anybody I've cared about and so I couldn't go. I thought 'what if I get caught or he grasses me up or if tells someone'. I couldn't bear to be in prison knowing that I love someone. That's why I couldn't go. And it was too soon. I didn't really know my new contacts in London."
"And if my boyfriend got caught I'd think it's his own stupid fault because he's a user. I wouldn't visit him in prison because he wouldn't visit me."
Nevertheless, dreams are free and Emma dreams of solving her immediate problems with a big run of her own. If somebody lent her £100,000, she says, she could go into business herself and make £400,000 in a week by employing couriers herself. She has already calculated that on a Microlite, with a little more time for organisation, she could get 100-150 kilos of cocaine into the UK via Holland or France, landing on someone's front lawn. Even hash would be worth £2,000 per kilo, landed, and would cost a mere £400 to buy in Turkey. She could make £100,000 on one run, she says.
"You can buy a kilo for £10,000 and its actually worth about £40,000 by the time you sell it on but before it's broken down into ounces or 'cut' diluted with, say, glucose or bicarbonate of soda which is bad for those who snort it, but then most people wash it up and base it now. In my eyes that £40,000 could be £60,000-£80,000 by the time it's cut. By the time it's been cut again and again it will be worth perhaps eight or ten times the price when landed in the UK."
But this is now just day-dreaming. The truth is that she's as washed up as the coke she started using when she met her boyfriend:
"I don't know where I picture myself certainly not in England. I'd like to be successful, liked, admired all the opposites of low self-esteem. I'd like to be married and have children but not yet, not with what I can offer now. The criminal life doesn't offer anyone a lot."
"You don't trust Turkish people... you don't trust no-one really but you have to because they're trusting you. The Italians, well, you don't do the dirty on them and they don't do the dirty on you."
"Yeah, I agree... Now I know what's out there... It's just full of sharks."
"I'm learning everyday that you can't trust people and they go ripping you off or they'll pull a gun out on you over £1,000."
"My problem now is that I pulled out on a deal. I'd 'bought' some stuff without paying for it in return for a couriering job which I backed out of. One couriering job would sort out my problems, but looking the way I do I'd be caught immediately."
The name of this interviewee has been changed in order to protect her identity.
© (1993) Christopher Long. Copyright, Syndication & All Rights Reserved Worldwide.
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