Where the trail begins:  Farmers Hernan Ruela and his wife Maria Laura de Ruela fill a bag with coca leaves in a coca market in Villa Tunari, Bolivia. Bolivia is the world's third biggest producer of coca, the prime ingredient of cocaine, and two other South American countries, Columbia and Venezuela, are primary sources of Bermuda’s supply — some of which, police suspect, is being smuggled onto the island in liquid form. *MCT photo
Where the trail begins: Farmers Hernan Ruela and his wife Maria Laura de Ruela fill a bag with coca leaves in a coca market in Villa Tunari, Bolivia. Bolivia is the world's third biggest producer of coca, the prime ingredient of cocaine, and two other South American countries, Columbia and Venezuela, are primary sources of Bermuda’s supply — some of which, police suspect, is being smuggled onto the island in liquid form. *MCT photo
Drug mules are playing a 'game of chance' with their lives as they swallow liquid cocaine to try to make some quick money.

Narcotics police on the island are on the lookout for smugglers who could be heading to the island after gulping down scores of homemade drug capsules.

Seeing "nothing but dollar signs", the mules can swallow up to a kilo of liquid cocaine - which has a street value in Bermuda of about $30,000. They line their stomachs with liquid cocaine pellets stashed inside latex, even though the tiniest of tears can cause the liquid drug to seep out and kill them.

This form of drug smuggling - known as body packing - is on the increase across the world and overdoses and deaths are not uncommon.

Narcotics officer Sergeant Hayden Small spoke to the Bermuda Sun about the police service's "growing concern" and suggested swallowers could already be getting onto the island.

Sgt. Small, who has specialized in narcotics for 12 years, said: "These swallowers are putting their own lives at risk, but they don't care, all they see is the dollar signs. It doesn't take much for the latex to rip then the liquid drug can seep into the body. Just a couple of drips of liquid cocaine leaking in your stomach can be lethal.

"Swallowers can become sick on the plane then perish to death. Once liquid cocaine leaks into your stomach, you've gone and you're not coming back."

The technique involves dissolving the crystalline white cocaine in water then creating homemade pellets using a machine which supposedly ensures an airtight seal.

Drug mules used to swallow drugs inside of condoms or balloons, but it is now thought that the fingers of surgical latex gloves, which are more sturdy, are the material of choice. However, the release of gastric acids in the stomach can burn through the latex, and leakage nearly always means a massive overdose and death.

Drug mules can swallow anything from 10 to 120 pellets of cocaine - which are about two inches long and half an inch wide. If the cocaine was about 75% pure, 120 pellets (or a kilo) of cocaine would make between $27,000 and $30,000 on Bermuda's streets.

The mules will take tablets to induce constipation during the course of the trip then take laxatives when they have arrived at a pre-arranged address. The amount of cash depends on the number of pellets they can swallow, but they only usually get paid at the end of the journey after the safe delivery of the consignment.

Sgt. Small stressed that although no one had been caught with drugs in liquid format in Bermuda, it was extremely difficult to detect. As airport X-ray machines can only scan luggage rather than people, the majority of swallowers are believed to slip through undetected.

Sgt. Small said: "This is something that has been brought to our attention. Drugs are getting into the island and this could be through swallowing in liquid format.

On the lookout

"We don't know of it happening in Bermuda for sure, but we are on the lookout because it is already a trend around the world."

Most large drug seizures in Bermuda tend to take place at the airport or at the docks. Sgt. Small said at the airport, drugs can be found at the freight shed, at courier businesses or the Bermuda mail processing centre.  

He added that neither Customs nor police officers can infringe upon people's human rights unless they have specific intelligence to suspect someone has swallowed drugs.

Detecting drugs in the stomach involves swabs being taken and the suspect having to wait at the hospital under guard until the drugs have passed through their system.

Sgt .Small said the street value of cocaine and heroin made them the drugs of choice to swallow, but all drugs continue to be smuggled into the island.

He said: "A small amount of cocaine or heroin are easy to conceal when swallowing. Cannabis isn't as popular as it becomes bulky and it doesn't have the street value to make it worthwhile to swallow."

Sgt. Small stressed it "wasn't worth the risk" to smuggle drugs. "We are watching you," he warned: the police study the travel movements of anyone they suspect as well as "locals heading to non-traditional destinations." Sgt. Small added that there was also "a lot more information [shared] between agencies" such as Customs, the National Drug Council and even the FBI.

He said: "It's a chance you take, but it's a huge chance. You are playing with your life. If you take the chance then you have to deal with the consequences."