DUBAI // Children as young as 11 have been used as drug mules in attempts to traffic drugs into the UAE in what customs officers described as a cynical and dangerous trend employed by smugglers.
Tramadol pills stuffed in soft toys and carried by children were discovered at Dubai International Airport last year, one of a number of cases involving young people exploited by parents and relatives.
Others had bags of tablets and powder taped to their torsos and hidden under their clothing.
Customs and police officers arrested 1,962 people at the transit hub last year — five every day on average. This marked a significant increase from 1,350 in 2015.
Many were women including many that had swallowed kilos of powder wrapped in rubber packages in an attempt to pass through security undetected, customs said, though were not able to provide a figure.
Ibrahim Al Kamali, director of passenger operations at Dubai Customs, said the number of drug mules continues to rise, despite new advances in technology that make their arrest more likely.
“The exploitation of children is among the new tactics used by drug traffickers to facilitate smuggling narcotics into this country,” he told The National.
“We continue to see drug mules use extraordinary tactics to bring mostly lyrica and marijuana into the country. Custom officers, aided by police, resort to equally extraordinary techniques to detect and arrest them.”
Tramadol, an opiate used to ease severe pain, is only available on a strictly monitored prescription in the UAE, but is widely available in countries like Thailand and Cambodia.
It is often taken with alcohol for an enhanced effect but with serious risk.
Among the other most commonly seized drugs is lyrica, which eases diabetic nerve pain but can have a similar effect to Valium and can be addictive.
Marijuana is also among the three most smuggled drugs.
“Drug smugglers are resorting to unexpected and new tactics and inventive drug smuggling methods in a bid to bring drugs into the country,” he said.
“For example, inserting an amount of drugs in their bodies, stuffing tramadol pills in teddy bears or even splitting almonds to stuff them with drugs.
“In the past smugglers have tended to be men, however, customs officers are now seeing a rise in the number of women and children as young as 11,” Mr Al Kamali said.
“We’ve had dealt with several cases where children younger than 15-years-old accompanied by their families who were found to be hiding drugs in their clothes, bags or baby strollers.
“I suspect more women and children are probably now involved because of ignorance and their need for money,” Mr Al Kamali said.
“Also, the feeling that women and children are less suspicious and might throw the custom inspectors off,” he added.
In Dubai, prosecutors rarely ask a judge for the death penalty, but Prosecutor Ahmed Saif, from Dubai Public Prosecution, said smuggling using children should be punished with the maximum penalty.
“In my view when a person employs children to mule drugs, they deserve to be executed,” he said.
“The majority of children found to be hiding drugs are accompanied by their families or an elderly,” the prosecutor said.
“In cases where a person is arrested for smuggling drugs with the intention of selling them, the person will get life imprisonment.
“An investigation will still be carried out if the person is below 18-year-old and different legal procedures looked at and we will weigh up what will be in the interest of the child.
“Drug traffickers think only about the money they collect. Today, it does not surprise me that they resort to any method to smuggle or circulate drugs,” the prosecutor added.
Rather than being closely linked to drug cartels, smugglers are typically young women in financial problems, often bringing drugs to the UAE with them when they arrive to start a job.
“Domestic workers are commonly category involved, they commit these crimes because of financial problems,” Prosecutor Saif said.
“Of course the dealers promise them a big reward.”
Back on the ground in the terminals, despite the technology available to officers, including CCTV and full body scanners, officers’ instinct remains the main tool in catching mules, said Brigadier Ali Atiq Bin Lahej, director of airport security at Dubai Police.
“Customs inspectors and airport security officers can monitor travellers’ body language.
“For me, the most remarkable method of smuggling continues to be smuggling or stuffing drugs in their bodies, but we always find them.”