They had come into Spain from Peru: a French couple in their early sixties, he was carrying a walking stick, she was in a wheelchair. He said he was opening a restaurant in Lima, but couldn’t give the name: “I still haven’t thought of one yet,” he said when asked by the police. She was pretending to be his wife. Later, the man, who had some 20 exit and entry stamps from Lima airport, admitted he had been a drug addict most of his adult life, and had met the woman he was traveling with shortly before boarding his flight to Madrid. She ended up admitting that she didn’t know the man, but had lung cancer and wanted to be able to leave her son some money when she died. Around seven kilograms of cocaine had been hidden in the wheelchair.
There was even a small orchestra from Venezuela whose members had swallowed bags of drugs
On a flight from Santo Domingo there was a German, also in his early sixties, immaculately dressed, and wearing a priest’s dog collar. Before the police opened his hand luggage, finding five small bricks of cocaine next to a Bible, he had told them he was visiting Spain to meet Evangelist churches. He wasn’t a priest, but the disguise had worked in other European countries.
On another occasion, two young Venezuelans arrived. They were dressed as students, wearing ties, and with university logos on their jumpers. They said they were attending a university course in Spain, but when made to drop their trousers police discovered bags of cocaine wrapped around their legs with bandages. There was even a small orchestra from Venezuela whose members had swallowed bags of the drug.
These are just a few of the stories behind the seizure in 2014 of more than a ton of cocaine and the arrest of 364 people made by Spanish police at Adolfo Suárez-Barajas airport in Madrid.
In most cases, those arrested will have been sent to prison for terms of between four and nine years. The head of the police unit at Barajas describes the drug smugglers routinely caught entering the country as “desperate: mothers, retirees, people with no way to earn a living and no savings, men and women released from jail with no way back to Spain, and who are easy prey for gangs who pay their air fare…”
The Drug Unit’s small office at Barajas monitors between 35 and 40 flights a day, each with some 200 people aboard. The 33 officers in the team are trained to notice people, to look for signs of nervousness, for clothes that don’t fit properly, for heels on shoes that are too high, wigs... “Anything strange that doesn’t fit in,” says one officer with a decade of experience on the force, adding: “You can get it wrong many times before you start to get it right. “I miss more often than an airgun at a funfair,” jokes one recent arrival.
The police at Barajas pay particular attention to passengers who look the most normal, or who are elderly or disabled: for them, the less suspicious somebody looks, the more suspicious they are. The black and white photographs of those arrested are pinned to the side of a shelving unit in the office.
They are mothers, retirees, people with no way to earn a living and no savings – easy prey for gangs who pay their air fare…”
An evasive answer to a question at customs such as: “What do you do for a living?” often leads to a more detailed interrogation, a search, and sometimes the discovery of drugs hidden on the person or in luggage. The police say that it isn’t easy to come up with a convincing story, and that they arrest more men than women, but that ages vary greatly, and that there is no typical profile.
The police say that they are constantly surprised at the ways people find to smuggle drugs: in the heels of shoes, in tins, in the spines of children’s books, in bags of sweets, in makeup bags, in telephone chargers, breast implants and orthopedic legs, strapped to buttocks, in hair extensions, impregnated into clothes… For the Drug Unit at Barajas, the list goes on and on.