The Trials of Drug ‘Mules’ in Chile’s Northern Desert

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Article 22 of Chile’s drug law states that a prisoner may reduce their sentence by cooperating with the police. In a perversion of these regulations, powerful inmates will coordinate drug shipments, only to later rat out the drug “mules” and “burreros” — people from low-income backgrounds who transport cocaine and marijuana. Journalism collective Dromomanos traced this route, in the final article published by Mexican newspaper Domingo El Universal as part of its “Drug Trafficking in the Americas” series.

Everyone laughed except Ramiro Chambi. The judge had read him the police report in the courtroom: Bolivian national Ramiro Jacinto Chambi, age 26, was arrested last Friday at 8 p.m. in Arica, while carrying three packets of cocaine. The judge asked Ramiro whether he’d understood what was just said. The young man answered that he did, but that there was a mistake concerning the packets. “There weren’t three, there were seven,” he said gravely. The courtroom broke out in laughter; they thought it was a joke. Nobody understood why the accused would say he was carrying more drugs than what the police report said.

Ramiro was frozen — he didn’t understand either. He had been caught with seven packets; he’d counted them before putting them into his backpack that night. And nevertheless, the judge said it was three; the anti-drug force of the Arica Carabineros (one of Chile’s police bodies) had said it was three.

Ramiro’s lawyer elbowed him. “Lower the number because they might let you go free,” he whispered. The young man doubted it.

The judge asked him, “Was it seven or three?” Ramiro answered that it was three, but it didn’t make a difference. The judge sentenced him to five years and a day in prison.

This article originally appeared in Domingo El Universal and was translated and reproduced with permission. See Spanish original here

Nearly two years later, in January 2014, Ramiro was still mulling over what happened during the trial. “I didn’t know what was going on. My lawyer made me hesitate, I couldn’t think, I’d gone stupid,” he recalled in the visitor’s room in Acha prison, in the north Chilean city of Arica. Ramiro, a young man with a broad back, child-like bangs and golden caps on his teeth, had thought there was something odd about the whole thing, although he didn’t know what it could be. He went over what had happened the night that they caught him again and again, as though this would help him discover something that until then had escaped him. But he didn’t find it. He said to himself that in a while they might let him go for good behavior. That way he could go home.

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Ramiro (pictured left) lived in the city of El Alto, next to La Paz. By day he worked in a textile factory sewing backpacks. By night he studied business administration. He visited Arica for the first time in 2011. An uncle of his lived there. Soon he realized that clothes there were much cheaper than in Bolivia. So were cell phones and cameras. After that, he started going to Arica every few weeks. Some of his classmates had clothing stores in La Paz and would put in orders when he went. Ramiro liked it — he felt important buying merchandise in Arica and selling it in La Paz. It was an extra salary.

Arica is an important city for Bolivia. Located in the middle of a desert, 18 kilometers from Peru, the capital of northern Chile serves as Bolivia’s principal port. Some 80 percent of the merchandise that enters and leaves this port is going to or coming from Bolivia. Dozens of trucks arrive each day from La Paz and Santa Cruz, loaded with wood and soy. Others exit Chile loaded with industrial machinery and other manufactured goods. While lying on a patch of grass next to this port, resting, Ramiro would observe the Bolivian truckers that — like him — traveled frequently to the city.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Chile

Each of Ramiro’s visits would last two weeks, more or less. He would comb through the markets in central Arica; play soccer with his uncle; and go for walks. During his final trip, in March 2012, everything was the same as always. On Thursday, March 15, he played a game alongside his uncle. He doesn’t remember if they won or lost. Ramiro was planning to take the bus Friday night, so he had that next morning free. His uncle was working, and, feeling restless, he went back to the soccer pitch. When he arrived, two teams were playing a match. Roberto, a Peruvian, invited him to join. When they finished, they stayed to talk. Roberto told him that he was managing a restaurant just a few blocks away. He invited him to have lunch and Ramiro accepted. They made small talk about their work and their studies — a superficial conversation, nothing important. After a while, Roberto offered him a job.

“Are you interested in making some pesos?” he asked.

Ramiro asked what the job was and his companion responded that it was something very simple. The young Bolivian said that he was actually headed back to La Paz that night, and Roberto said it was no problem — the job would only take him a little while in the afternoon. Ramiro thought about it.

“How much does it pay?” he asked.

At that moment, he had already guessed what it had to do with, but when he heard the response, he knew he had to accept. It paid $700. He had to go to the playing field, pick up seven packages and carry them 10 blocks, to a roundabout located by the city’s bus terminal. “$700,” he said to himself, “is three months’ wages in Bolivia.”

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With Trained Dogs

Dozens of Bolivian citizens are held in prison in northern Chile for trafficking small quantities of drugs. The majority arrive by bus; a few make the trip on foot. At the beginning of 2014, the Bolivian consulate in Arica counted 179 Bolivian prisoners in that city’s jail — 45 of them women — the majority for drug trafficking. The number of Peruvians held in Arica for trafficking is also high. In December 2013, according to the Peruvian consulate, there were 176. And that’s nothing: two years earlier, Chile had expelled more than 800 Bolivian and Peruvian prisoners from the country after they finished serving a five year, one day sentence for trafficking 600, 700 and even 800 grams of cocaine.

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Ramiro seemed like an atypical prisoner. Drug couriers — the mules, the burreros, the people who transport drugs in vehicles, luggage, under their clothes or even, often, using their body as a container for the product — are normally caught at the border. If they come from Bolivia, the police wait for them at the Chungara border crossing, at more than 5,000 meters above sea level. If they come from Peru, the agents wait at the Chacalluta crossing, just a few kilometers from the coast, with dogs trained to search for narcotics and an x-ray machine. In addition to the place he was detained, Ramiro’s case was atypical because he was carrying the drugs in a backpack, rather than in his stomach. The rest of the mules that we met in prison had been captured at the border with hundreds of grams of cocaine inside of them.

Sara Calisaya, a native of Santa Cruz, in eastern Bolivia, was carrying 780 grams in her stomach when they caught her. She was 18 years old. When she used to attend school, she wanted to study chemistry and open a pharmacy. Her mother worked at home and her father worked carrying sacks of rice. She worked at a boarding house — a place with a fixed-price menu — when she wasn’t in class. Sometimes her parents fought and her dad took off for a few days. After one of the fights, her dad left and never came back. Later, her mother developed a heart problem and the money started to get scarce. A school companion proposed that she start dealing marijuana. She said she would give her 200 bolivianos worth (about $29) of drugs and she could sell it for 250 bolivianos ($36). The earnings were minimal — just $7 — but Sara accepted and never had problems. A while later, her friend told her about a woman who organized trips to Chile to transport drugs, and about the money she could make. Sara, desperate, accepted again.

SEE ALSO: Evo’s Challenge: Bolivia the Drug Hub

On January 5, 2013 Sara went to the place her friend had told her about. It was located in an elegant neighborhood on the outskirts of Santa Cruz, in the town of Montero. The front of the house was painted a beautiful sky blue color. Behind the black gate, in the garden, several ceramic ducks adorned the entrance. The lady was named Myriam. Sara waited in the garden to be let in. Myriam had two cars and a bunch of motorcycles in the garage. Sitting astride one of the motorcycles, smiling, a man with gold teeth stared at her. They had seen each other before at school. The man came looking for girls like her to turn them into mules. Her friend had told her that he was a friend of hers.

Sara, a rosy-cheeked girl with a singer’s voice, entered the house a few minutes later. She saw a living room and a TV, a table with a tablecloth, and several computers — as though it were an internet cafe. Myriam told her to continue on to the following room. Unlike the previous one, the walls of this room were worn down and unpainted. There was just one table in the middle. It was a wooden table without a tablecloth, surrounded by various chairs. Another three girls were waiting there. Myriam, who was about twice their age, said that it was an easy job.

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“There are no controls in Chile, don’t worry,” she encouraged them. Sara (pictured right) would never have gone to that house if she had had a choice, but her mother was sick, and needed a pacemaker. She thought nothing would happen, anyway, but she had no choice. She made 500 bolivianos a month cooking — $73 — and it wasn’t enough. She decided that she would swallow nearly a kilo of drugs and cross the border between Bolivia and Chile. She would become a mule. Then she would vomit it up, return, and make $900.

Myriam took out a roll of plastic to cover a corner of the room. Then she went to the fridge, took out a dish full of carrot chunks and put it on the table. Sara didn’t understand. Myriam said unenthusiastically that the pieces of carrot resembled the cocaine capsules they would have to swallow, which were about the size of a thumb. She said the exercise would help prepare their throats and esophagi.

Everyone had to swallow five pieces before they started. Sara didn’t like it; they were too big, but she barely had time to think about it. Minutes later the lady’s husband arrived with a bag full of cocaine capsules. He started to pressure them. “You have to be able to, I haven’t brought these for nothing,” he said several times.

Myriam placed 78 cocaine capsules in front of Sara, in several rows. She would be the first. They looked like hardened fingers, pills to cure the headache of an elephant. With the encouragement of the hostess, she started to swallow. She felt a pain in her stomach from the very beginning, but Myriam told her it was normal. In a few minutes, the adolescent girl swelled to the size of a woman who was three months pregnant. For a full day, her body would carry 780 grams of cocaine, while she hoped that no capsule would break, that the plastic would hold. If anything happened, she would die in just a few hours. A little while after swallowing the capsules, Sara and the lady travelled to Cochabamba, eight hours from Santa Cruz. It was the first stage of a journey that Sara would finish alone in the neighboring country. At that time, she still didn’t know that she would end up in jail with a scar across her stomach.

The Industry of the Accusables

When Ramiro got to the playing field at around 7 p.m., the Peruvian was waiting for him. The young man had brought with him an empty green backpack. The Peruvian gave him a white bag with seven packets of cocaine. He just had to carry them for 10 blocks, and someone would come pick them up. Since it was late, Ramiro took a collective taxi. When he was two blocks from the meeting place, he got out. He kept walking. As he was nearing the spot, he saw a man standing on the sidewalk, talking on the phone. When he approached him, the man stopped talking and asked where he was going. Ramiro thought he wanted to rob him and he got scared. And then the man identified himself: he was an official from the Carabineros. He ordered Ramiro to show him what he was carrying in the bag, and to show him his ID card. Ramiro thought it was strange that a Carabineros officer would be walking alone at night far outside the city center, dressed in civilian garb, but he obeyed. Ten minutes later, he was sitting in a Carabineros patrol car, headed to prison. The next day, Saturday, they took him in front of a judge, and ever since then, he has been shut up in jail.

Ramiro thought they had tricked him. The task they had given him, he reflected, was just a trap. Article 22 of the Chilean drug code allows people imprisoned for drug trafficking to get an early release if they “cooperate effectively” with the police — that is to say, if they rat on someone who tries to enter the country with drugs. Ramiro connected the dots: somebody had prepared the drug shipment just to get him in trouble. “I am a 22,” he said.

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Magaly Zegarra, the Bolivian consul in Arica, told us that many prisoners said the same thing. Zegarra, a gray haired woman with a moderate enthusiasm for Buddhism, has visited the city’s prison each week for the past six years. She spoke to us about the drug law, Article 22, and about Ramiro and other prisoners. She told us about the case of Alejandro Choque and Mariana Moreno, a Bolivian couple that had been arrested several months ago for bringing drugs in from Peru.

In the prison, Choque explained that he had swallowed some 50 cocaine capsules. This had occurred in Tacna, Peru’s southernmost city. He and his wife had travelled from Santa Cruz to buy clothes. Mariana had a store, and the prices were lower in the Peruvian border city. In Tacna, an acquaintance of Mariana’s had offered them a “little job,” something easy. Alejandro would carry 500 grams of cocaine in his stomach and Mariana would hide 200 in her clothes. They would receive $800. Since they had eight children, they accepted. Alejandro swallowed the capsules with juice and Mariana hid the rest as well as she could. They left Tacna and half an hour later, at the border, when they got off the bus to get their passports stamped, the Chilean investigative police asked what they had with them. Alejandro thought it was “a 22.” Mariana had the same feeling.

Chilean police easily recognize drug couriers. The deputy superintendent of the investigative police, Ruben Gatica, led a group of eight agents at the Chacalluta border crossing. Working two kilometers from Peru, in the middle of the desert, Gatica said that in 20 years of service he had seen everything. The majority of couriers ingest the drug, he said, but there are mules that swallow half and hide half in the soles of their shoes; others use perfume bottles, diapers, baby carriages, cans of tomatoes… “We have even detained pregnant women and women who hide the drugs in their vaginas,” he said, adding that the mafias are always coming up with new ways to traffic. Just last year, according to the Chilean police, more than 6 million doses of drugs — principally cocaine and marijuana — were confiscated at Chile’s borders with Peru and Bolivia. Their market value would have exceeded $15 million.

When people ingest drugs, Gatica said, their eyes shine and redden — it looks like they have just stopped crying. Their mouth goes dry and their tongue gets white. Swallowing cocaine capsules irritates the respiratory and digestive systems. These signs are easy for the trained eye to detect, although the first and most important sign, said the deputy superintendent, is their attitude at the control window. If a Bolivian or a Peruvian that is trying to cross the border acts nervous, they are marked. The officials at the window alert the anti-drug agents, and they bring them to the interview room — a unit of two square meters in which the predominant feature is an x-ray machine. Alejandro and Mariana didn’t even pass through the machine; they just broke down.


“Effective cooperation is a legal term that exists everywhere, but here, in Chile, it has been used the wrong way.”


In her office, Zegarra skillfully managed two enormous folders full of cases like those of Ramiro, Sara, Alejandro and Mariana. She insisted that these prisoners were poor and uprooted, that they were victims, and that Article 22 of the drug law had a perverse effect. Sergio Zenteno, research head of the Arica Ombudsman’s Office, also criticized the drug code and said that it criminalized the couriers. “The penalties are extremely high,” he said, “and the convicts are left alone.”

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In regard to Article 22, the ombudsman, who deals each year with dozens of cases like those of Sara and Ramiro, said that the reality was masked by the official statistics. Hector Barros, one of the most respected anti-drug prosecutors in the country, admitted there were holes in the law in this regard, and said that with Article 22 they had even found cases in which the lawyers offered their clients the service of sending someone with drugs to Chile so that they could rat them out and get their sentence reduced. It was the industry of the “accusables.”

“They tried to sell effective cooperation,” said the prosecutor. “Effective cooperation is a legal term that exists everywhere, but here, in Chile, it has been used the wrong way.”

In the case of Ramiro Chambi, Zegarra used an angrier tone than when she spoke about the rest. He was not just “a 22”; the consul believed that the Carabineros had used him for some shady reasons. Around that time — at the end of January 2014 — the most recent information regarding the anti-drug unit of the Arica Carabineros appeared to reinforce these suspicions.

In October 2013, the Arica Attorney General’s Office had begun investigating officers from the OS-7 unit of the Arica Carabineros, who were in charge of combating drug trafficking in the region. According to the information compiled, the head of the unit and another three officers led a drug trafficking network that extended into Bolivia. During the investigation, prosecutors documented how the officers had prepared two controlled drug seizures in Arica. It seemed to be a front for illegally trafficking drugs into Chile. At the beginning of this year, the Attorney General’s Office ordered between 25 and 40 years in prison for the officials implicated in the crimes of illicit association and drug trafficking.

While sitting at her office desk, Zegarra asked herself how many of her prisoners had been caught because of the activities of the OS-7. She believed that Ramiro Chambi was one of them. Just as the Carabineros had prepared two controlled drug deliveries, she thought, the same had occurred with Ramiro. The young Bolivian had heard about the OS-7 case in prison. He laughed like someone who felt defeated.

“They found out that all of them were involved; someday all the details will emerge,” he said, “but that’s life.” Ramiro thought about his case and concluded that there were a lot of prisoners in Arica that shouldn’t be there. His uncle had visited him once, and he had communicated with his family via the consul. But in general, he was alone.

“Do It Or You’re Going to Die, Girl”

The day Sara took the bus to Chile, Myriam gave her some pills for her stomach pain. In the Cochabamba terminal — the point from which the girl would continue alone — Sara complained several times. She felt sharp pains in her belly, and thought the cocaine was going to come out through her mouth. As Myriam was buying her ticket, it happened: a cocaine capsule left her stomach, travelled up her throat and came out her mouth. There were 77 capsules still inside her. Sara got scared. She told Myriam that she couldn’t do it. At that moment she forgot her needs, the lack of money, and decided that she wouldn’t travel, but the other lady finally convinced her.

Sara’s bus reached the Chilean border at around 5 p.m. the next day. Myriam had told her that if they asked, she should say she was a student. The pain in her stomach had continued throughout the journey. Before she got off the bus to have her papers reviewed, she vomited a greenish liquid several times. A lady traveling with her had asked about it, and she said she was pregnant; that it must be morning sickness. At the border the officials suspected something, but they let her continue. Further along, in the middle of the desert, Sara started to throw up blood. At an investigative police control post further south, the police saw it clearly:

“What are you carrying?” they asked.

Sara couldn’t pretend anymore. “I need you to help me,” she said.

The officials took her with them. The young woman could not stand; she felt like her legs were asleep. They took her to the toilet.

“You have to get it all out, girl,” they said. “You have to get it out because if you don’t they’re going to explode inside you. Do it or you’re going to die, girl.” Sara’s vision started to blur and she fainted. The police threw water on her face and gave her chicken and yogurt so that she would eat and push out the cocaine capsules. She vomited again. She fainted. The officials got scared and they pushed on her stomach, hard. Sara remembered how at that point she threw up 15 capsules. One official shouted that they had to get her to a hospital and Sara didn’t say anything; she had no strength and barely was aware of them bringing her to a medical center, throwing her on a bed and giving her a paper to sign so that they could give her an enema. After she signed the paper, Sara fell asleep. When she woke up, hours later, she discovered a scar across her stomach.

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She scratched at it. The doctor told her not to. He explained that they had opened her stomach to take out the capsules that had remained inside. He said they had been blocking her intestines and that they had to operate. Sara got angry because she hadn’t known they were going to operate. She shouted, she pulled out the IV, she threw a fit. The doctor ordered them to sedate her.

A few days later, they brought Sara to the Arica prison, but the problems continued. Her intestine healed badly and Sara spent whole weeks without going to the bathroom, vomiting bile. They brought her to the hospital again. They said that she had to go to the bathroom, but she was scared that her scar would open up. The sergeant in charge rebuked her: “You have to go the bathroom!.” She entered, looked at the toilet, and felt a horrible fear. Fear of dying.

At the beginning of 2014, Sara was getting better. She was able to use the bathroom without fear and the scar was holding up. Consul Magaly Zegarra visited her each week and tried to keep her spirits up. The day that we visited her, she was dressed in a blue and white striped shirt and worn-out leggings. The consul said she was very sensitive, but Sara didn’t do anything that the others didn’t do. That day everyone was sobbing. Ramiro broke down when he remembered his mother, Alejandro and Mariana (pictured above) when they spoke of their children, and Sara, whose cheeks still contained traces of teenage acne, cried out of fear: she didn’t want her stomach to ever hurt again.

*This article originally appeared in Domingo El Universal and was translated and reproduced with permission. See Spanish original here. Alejandra S. Inzunza and Jose Luis Pardo Veiras also contributed reporting to this article. 

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