The journey of drug mules from Peru to Spain: ‘Remember that I can have your family killed’

A Spanish judicial investigation to which EL PAÍS has had access reveals how a criminal gang in Barcelona recruits and exploits young women with the collusion of officials at Lima airport

Drug Mules Peru
Passengers arriving at Adolfo Suárez Madrid-Barajas airport.Marcos del Mazo (LightRocket via Getty Images)
Jesús García Bueno

Mules are the weakest link in international drug trafficking, more victims than executioners. Treated like pack animals, they travel by plane carrying drugs inside their bodies to cities in Europe. The reward — most of them are women — is minimal; the risks, considerable. If they are caught at the departure airport or on arrival, they will most likely end up behind bars. They are essential, albeit expendable, cogs in an opaque machine. The Nana case, a judicial investigation to which EL PAÍS has had access, provides a glimpse of how trafficking by mules is organized in Spain, from recruitment in Peru to training for the flight.

These secrets have been uncovered through explicit conversations that Jasmenn Katherin O., alias Martina, held for months in her car without knowing that the police had bugged the vehicle. Martina is the leader of a criminal group based in Barcelona that recruits Peruvian and Colombian women as mules and as prostitutes. The girls are, like cocaine, just another raw material to be acquired. The first step is to convince them to make the trip. They are recruited from among people in precarious economic or personal situations, often for little more than $1,000, a tiny amount compared to the multi-million-dollar drug trafficking business, but enormous when it comes to supporting a family.

In April 2022, the group contacted a woman from Pereira, Colombia, who suffered from depression and offered her “a good work contract” in Barcelona: €1,200 ($1,317) a month to take care of children and the elderly. Martina told her that she had to pose as a tourist and say that she would be staying in a hostel in the Chueca neighborhood of Madrid. She sent her the plane tickets and the girl arrived at Barajas Airport in the Spanish capital without any issues, where a “tall, burly” man was waiting for her, who handed her a train ticket to go to an apartment in Barcelona. Martina was waiting there. Until then, she had been charming, but the façade was swiftly dropped. She accompanied the girl “to buy high heels” and took away her passport because he owed her “$2,000 for the tickets.” When the first customer arrived and she was forced to have sex with him, she understood that the job was a lie.

The victim managed to escape from the premises a few days later and told the police what had happened to her. She became X37, a protected witness and the origin of an investigation that led a judge in Barcelona to order a tap on Martina’s phone, while the gang leader continued to issue threats via the Telegram social network: “Remember that I can have your family killed. Killing in Colombia doesn’t even cost a quarter of the fare.” But her caution when using the phone led investigators to explore a more daring avenue: installing an audio pickup device in a Kia car she was using. It reaped huge returns. From November 2022, Martina’s loquacity and that of her associates laid bare the workings of the organization.

“In Peru you will get through without any problem”

The method for recruiting mules is a mixture of threat and persuasion. In a tapped conversation with a potential candidate, Martina summarizes the process: “In Peru you will get through without any problem, because the same people from [airline] LATAM will be there to supervise you. A policeman will give you the guidelines and we will give you another phone number so you can contact us. You supposedly come for nine days as a tourist with your debit card in your name. Once [the drug] is sold, after five days you have your money and you decide whether you want to leave or stay in Spain.”

The group headed by Martina has partners in Peru, among them Don Arturo, who assists the girls (with the help of a nurse) when it comes to ingesting or introducing the substances into their bodies, and who then accompanies them to the airport in Lima. “He is an older man who does not swindle. I pay him $1,000 and he takes care of them, he makes them presentable, he does all the work,” says Martina in the recorded conversation.

With Arturo’s mediation, on November 21, 2022, a girl arrived in Madrid carrying 1.5 kilos of cocaine wrapped in condoms, according to Martina, who went to pick her up at Barajas with two other people. During the drive to Barcelona, the mule says she has been “in a lot of pain since I got off the plane,” and Martina gives her laxative to expel the substance in the sink of a gas station. “You go in and put the bag on. You put on your gloves, but don’t wash them. Hold on, okay? You did all this for a reason.”

The trip had been a half success. The group, which allegedly included nine people, intended to sell the drug (a task that Martina’s partner, Pedro C., oversees), but the smell of the cocaine after it has been recovered made this difficult. Martina wanted to try her luck with another system: the mule will carry the cocaine inside her clothes. For that, she needs a tailor to make her an adjusted suit. She is cautious during the preparation with her partners in Peru: “Before putting on the girdle, you have to put on a body suit. Try to perfect it because if you pat it, you can feel it. We are risking our lives, our freedom.” Yocelin, the chosen mule, was going to carry four kilos of cocaine but she was arrested before getting on the plane. Martina was furious: “I’m going to take it out of her in blood.”

“This policeman wants €2,500 to let the girl through”

The Nana case underlines that it this an international business whose success depends on the collaboration of officials and workers on the other side of the Atlantic. In another call with Don Arturo, Martina asks him to activate a contact of his nicknamed El Raya: a policeman who helps the girls to pass through airport security controls. “This policeman wants €2,500 to let the girl through,” says Don Arturo. “I wanted to know,” she asks another collaborator, “if your friend the policeman could let her pass.”

The Catalan police state that the group “always uses the same company” — LATAM — where they allegedly have “the personal favor” of some employees. “I use the same people from LATAM, the coordinator and the manager. And those on the ramp, who are the ones who speed up the metal ring,” Martina says somewhat cryptically. She also claims a certain Kemel provides “discounts” on tickets and other favors. “I need you to take the girl out on a tour as if she’s coming to sightsee. I need her to get through no matter what.”

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