Hot! Drug Mules in Thailand


Mule1 someone who smuggles something across a national border, employed to lower the risk of those higher up the food chain being caught.

It has been estimated2 that the world’s illegal drugs trade is worth at least as much as the individual oil, gas or world tourism industries. Thailand’s neighbour, Burma, is the world’s second largest opium manufacturer3 and is also a major methamphetamine focal point, making the Land of Smiles desirable as a transport point for drug dealers and traffickers.

As of February 1, 2013, there were 257,323 prisoners in Bangkok. Despite wide publicity of the lengthy sentences, the number of inmates held on narcotic-related offences continues to rise: in 2010 the figure was an incredible 116,323, compared to 102,727 in 20084 . In 2009, there were 7,258 foreigners in the Thai legal system – of those, almost 61% were imprisoned for narcotic charges.

If a person is found guilty of drug trafficking in Thailand, the starting sentence is clear: death.


Drug Mules

It is easy to have little sympathy for people who commit such crimes in full knowledge of what they are doing and the penalties awaiting them if caught. Sandra Gregory was an English teacher who agreed to carry 89 grams of heroin on a flight from Bangkok to Tokyo in 1993, on behalf of a man she barely knew. Alexander “Shani” Krebs, a South African man, agreed to carry a Nigerian’s backpack (full of heroin) into South Africa when his own bag was stolen. Andrew Hoods, an unemployed 36-year-old Australian, fully accepts that he attempted to smuggle 12 bags of heroin with an estimated street value of 12 million baht for “money, (I did it) only for the money.”5

But what of the people who have been “tricked” into acting as mules?

In 1990, Karyn Smith accepted a free holiday to Thailand from her friend, Patricia Cahill’s boyfriend. Both were arrested atBangkok’s Don Muang airport on their way home, carrying what was at the time, one of the world’s largest heroin hauls. Both maintained innocence of an attempt to traffic drugs, although Cahill later revealed awareness that she was carrying “something6 .”

Similarly, 30-year-old Patricia Hussain was arrested in Thailand in 1993 for carrying £2 million worth of heroin in her suitcase. Her original life sentence was reduced to ten years after she testified against other drug dealers. As a prostitute with a criminal record listing theft and fraud offences, Hussein attracted very little sympathy from the general public. While she admitted to trafficking heroin, she still maintains her position that she was tricked by her Nigerian boyfriend and had no knowledge of what was in her case.

The long sentences given to convicted drug mules are widely publicized, hence, it is surprising that people are still able to be duped, but they are. Google the words “drugs” and “Thailand” and the first site that appears comes with a cautionary message: “Drugs in Thailand – don’t do it”. So why, in this day and age of social media and general awareness, do people still take the risk?


Sophisticated Trickery

The trickery is changing: becoming more sophisticated, more conniving.

The widely reported recent imprisonment of South African drug mule Nolubabalo “Babsie” Nobanbanda, sentenced to 15 years and a fine of R250,000 (B814,005), is illustrative of just that.

Very few may initially have compassion for a girl who was caught attempting to smuggle 1.5 kg of cocaine in fake dreadlocks, but the background behind her sad tale may sound all too familiar to other mules. Indeed, the 23-year-old describes herself as a victim rather than a trafficker.

Babsie was approached by a family friend she had grown up with, a man named Sulezo Rwanqa. Sulezo told Babsie about a lucrative business opportunity in Brazil, selling hair chemicals across South   Africa for a Sulezo’s colleague. While she expressed concern about travelling alone and never having made the acquaintance of Sulezo’s colleague,. the opportunity of travelling and making some money was enough incentive for Babsie. The fact that her flight was paid for did not set any alarm bells ringing – why would it? Sulezo was a trusted family friend.

Only in Brazil did Babsie learn the real reason for the trip, which Sulezo had allegedly been aware of from the outset. She says it was then that she was told her life would be under threat if she did not agree to be a mule

With shades of Sandra Gregory, it would appear that the Immigration Bureau had been tipped off about Babsie: they were ready for her arrival. Once more, Babsie became another sad tale of a tricked mule used as a decoy to allow the real mule through. She was to be paid only R16 000 (B52,127) for the job – a fraction of the fine she received on top of her long prison sentence.

It seems all too common to dupe drug mules into carrying a small amount of drugs across a border, and tip off authorities in order to create a distraction enabling the “proper” mule to proceed undetected.

Trickery can manifest itself in different forms. The deception of mules can vary from the very fact they are carrying drugs, to the sentences and lack of support they will receive if caught. By way of illustration, the sophistication heightens: in December 2012, it was reported7 that eight people, including two customs officers and a quarantine officer said to be the ringleaders, were arrested for corruption and drug-related charges after operating a drug trafficking gang between Thailand and Australia. It is alleged8 that the customs officers were walking drug mules through security, the trickery being the assurance given to the used mules that it was therefore safe and they would not get caught.

Following a two-year investigation into the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service, this has been reported as one of Australia’s most serious allegations of corruption. A new Customs Reform Board is now in the process of being implemented to look into how such corruption in the Australian customs service was possible, and the shortfalls in airport and customs security at Sydney.


Tricked or Manipulated?

The word “tricked” can alternatively be substituted with the word “manipulated.” When one studies the profile of drug mules, a pattern of vulnerable and naïve personalities becomes apparent, suggesting such susceptible individuals are deliberately selected. The primary focus is on recruiting women as mules as they tend to be more pliable, often being the primary caregiver at home. However, it is not always so black and white:  some men are also as equally impressionable.

Michael Connell, 27, from Bury, United Kingdom, was sentenced to 99 years imprisonment to be served in the notorious Bangkok Hilton, nicknamed after the fictional Australian TV series from the late 1980s of the same name, when he was caught attempting to smuggle thousands of ecstasy pills through Suvanbhumi airport in 2003. His sentence was initially reduced to 30 years and then again to 20 years on appeal. In January 2012, he was permitted to serve the remaining twelve years of his sentence in Britain and will be eligible for parole after six years has passed.

His family explained that while he may not have been tricked into acting as a mule, his learning difficulties coupled with the added pressure of paying off a loan at such a young age, made him easy prey for dealers.

Let’s pause and again look at Sandra Gregrory’s case, reminding ourselves that at the time of her decision-making, she was suffering from dengue fever and dysentery, and was desperate for money to fly home for medical treatment. While Gregory accepts full responsibility for her actions9 , if she had been in full health and still working, would she have made the same decision? Or did her poor health make her open to manipulation and thus more amenable to Robert Lock’s proposal?

If Alexander “Shani” Krebs wasn’t recuperating in Thailand from a broken engagement and hadn’t lost his luggage, would he still have been asked by the Nigerian gentlemen to carry his bag, or did his apparent vulnerability leave him open to exploitation as a mule?


Thai Nationals as Drug Mules

The focus of this article thus far has been on foreigners as drug mules, but the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reports10 that the latest set of trickery in fact involves Thai women. The women are being lured into marriage with African men and then being forced to work as drug mules for African gangs.

It is alleged11 that the gangs prey on poor women by opening bars or restaurants in provinces for the simple purpose of meeting Thai women. They quickly marry them, take them home to Africa and spoil them with the promise of a wealthy and comfortable life. The women are encouraged to return to Thailand on their own to visit family, and at the last minute are provided with extra bags to carry. The rest is simple: if the women proceeds through customs undetected in Thailand, the men meet them to retrieve the bags; if they are caught, the women never see their husbands again.

This twist was exposed following the arrest of three Thai women who were found carrying suitcases containing cocaine, heroin and methamphetamines from West Africa into Thailand. All three women had recently married African men and claimed the men asked them to carry the drugs into the country. The women allegedly  were unaware they were even carrying drugs.

The trickery still continues to evolve with females now preying on the victims, building up a relationship of trust, much like in the case of Babsie.

In 2009, two Thai women were arrested. It was reported12 they tricked many other Thai woman into acting as mules and trafficking drugs across international borders. The majority of the mules came to Bangkok from the Northeast in search of employment  The information came to light as the Chinese and Indian consulates reported to the Foreign Ministry that 58 women were arrested in China the previous year and 10 in India.

In 2012, however, 109 Thai women were arrested attempting to smuggle drugs, predominantly cocaine, into Thailand, showing this new deceit is still not foolproof. It is reported13 all of the women are telling police they were forced to be drug mules by their foreign husbands.

Not all are so sympathetic to drug mules, however; one piece of food for thought is that pleading being duped or forced by a foreign husband is an easy hand to play for mules caught in the act, and that the mules enter into the situation with their eyes wide open

Regardless, the statistics presented at the start of this article speak for themselves. It is apparent that even the harsh sentences handed down by Thai’s legal system are not enough to dissuade those desperate enough to risk all for paltry sums of money. It is clear the present system is not acting as a deterrent.

The Royal Thai police are working in conjunction with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to combat this latest line of trickery. Families of mules are urging the authorities to start tracking those higher up the food chain, and indeed it seems the authorities are listening. In July 2012, two of the men who allegedly formed part of the gang who recruited Babsie were arrested in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, following a three-month investigation.



Presumably, more and more arrests will follow. The message from Thai authorities remains just as clear: you traffic at your peril and the penalties are severe, irrespective of your personal circumstances. This is echoed by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office which states, “Don’t become involved with drugs of any kind. Possession of even a small amount can lead to imprisonment…if you are found guilty of being in possession of 20 grams of a Class A drug at a point of exit from Thailand you will probably be sentenced to death14


[a2]   Meanwhile, as one mule is locked up, it is likely another has already been tricked in some shape, way or manner into acting as a replacement. Drug mules are after all only a means to an end. For the big guns, it is business as usual. The old saying is still valid: “if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

  • [1]
  • [3]
  • [4]
  • [6]
  • [7]
  • [8]
  • [10]
  • [11]


1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *