Traffickers Evolving More Sophisticated Drug Mule Operations

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Spanish police have broken up a network that allegedly moved cocaine from Colombia to Spain using a sophisticated and innovative twist on a classic method — the drug mule — demonstrating how even basic smuggling methods are always evolving.

On August 13, Spanish police announced they had arrested 30 people and seized 83 kilos of cocaine over the course of a yearlong investigation into a network they accuse of moving Colombian cocaine into Madrid airport using teams of traffickers working on commercial flights.

According to police, each flight would feature several “mules” carrying packets of cocaine in bags with a false bottom, working on the logic that even if some of the mules were identified and stopped, others would still make it through. In addition, there would be decoys on each flight, who would act suspiciously and be carrying packets of innocuous white powder in order to draw the attention of customs officials away from the actual mules. The trafficking teams also featured other passengers who acted as logistical coordinators overseeing the whole operation, from departure to the handover of the drugs on arrival.

In one flight, the authorities detained 14 people allegedly working together, half of whom were carrying drugs while the others performed the other roles.

InSight Crime Analysis

Since the cocaine boom of the 1980s, traffickers have consistently evolved ever more innovative techniques for transnational drug shipments. They have designed sophisticated transport methods, including drones, submarines and even catapults, while also developing new techniques to conceal cocaine, which they can turn into odorless liquids or be disguised as bricks of coal.

However, despite this constant technical innovation, simple, traditional methods such as the use of mules remain an important part of transnational drug trafficking.

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Although each mule can carry only a small quantity of drugs, they are seen as disposable by the actual traffickers, who can simply play the numbers. They flood flights with mules so that customs authorities cannot trace them all and if any get caught the loss in profits is small while the mule can simply be replaced with another desperate person willing to risk everything for quick money.

The operations of the network moving cocaine from Colombia to Spain and its use of decoys and logistical coordinators highlights how even these basic techniques are always evolving as traffickers seek new ways to maintain their advantage over the security forces.

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