Home > Arriving at a definition of ‘drug mules’.

Connolly, Johnny (2012) Arriving at a definition of ‘drug mules’. Drugnet Ireland, Issue 42, Summer 2012, p. 17.

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The use of human drug couriers, commonly referred to as ‘drug mules’, is a favoured method of trafficking drugs into Europe, with the drugs secreted either in the courier’s body or in their belongings.1 A thematic paper by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) reports on efforts to determine if it is possible to identify a common European definition of the term ‘drug mule’, with a view to assessing ‘the implications of this for data gathering and future research’. The EMCDDA project involved a review of existing law enforcement data and academic literature about drug markets and a survey of academics and practitioners working in the field. 

The report highlights the dearth of information and research in the area:  
… vast amounts of resources are spent on securing external and internal borders against illegal drugs and punishing those who break drug laws; however… . Very little is known about the operation of drug markets or about state and non-state responses to drug markets and the effects of these. There remains a disconnect between theoretical models and regular data gathering that empirical research has so far been unable to bridge’ (p.4).
The report considers the utility of existing law enforcement data sources in drug market research and identifies two primary limitations that apply. First, data such as those on drug offences and seizures are often used by countries as a means of monitoring supply reduction activities and as indirect indicators of drug availability.3 However, the link between supply reduction activities and drug availability is difficult, if not impossible, to assess due to the hidden nature of the market. Rather, such data should be seen primarily as indicators of law enforcement activity, affected in turn by law enforcement resources and priorities. The second limitation relates to data reliability and comparability. The EMCDDA gathers data from ’30 different legal systems, each with its own legislation, norms and practices’ (p.7). Different cultures of ‘information gathering, reporting and dissemination’ (p.6) mean that there are significant gaps in data and, in some cases, estimated figures, which limit the comparability of data between countries.
Drawing upon the annual reports of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the EMCDDA and Europol, the report then describes what is known about the international market for the four main drug types in order of European consumption estimates (cannabis, amphetamine-type stimulants including ecstasy, cocaine and heroin).  ‘These agencies have shown consistently, over a number of years, that markets for [these drugs] may follow basic commercial and logistic patterns: production, transit and arrival in primary markets’ (p.8).
The report then describes the methods, or ‘technologies’ used by drug traffickers and the targeted intelligence-led responses used by law enforcement agencies to counter these activities. One problem highlighted by the report, from the perspective of trying to shed further light on the roles involved in drug importation, is that law enforcement interventions are usually deemed internal operational matters and are therefore not subject to public or academic analysis and appraisal.
The report then considers various academic contributions to the study of illicit drug markets. Academic research is concerned, according to the report, with complementing official data sources such as those described above ‘with “bottom up” or “street-level” data, that is from interviews or observations of offenders involved in the drug markets’ (p.11). A limitation identified with research of this nature is that ‘access to the actors working in the drugs trade is severely limited because of the illicit nature of the activity and the danger to the researcher, and data from criminals are rarely verifiable’. Furthermore, data obtained from typical approaches such as interviews with incarcerated offenders ‘reflect successful law enforcement operations and/or unsuccessful trafficking operations’ and it is unclear how representative they may be of the market as a whole (p.11).
Nevertheless, following a review of the literature, the authors arrive at a proposed typology of drug importers: ‘the organiser/manager type, who is responsible for the organisation of the drug importation; the importation auxiliary, who assists in importations in the origin or destination country or both; and the courier’ (p.18). The courier type is defined as the importer who is in physical possession of the drugs while crossing an international border. The courier type is then further sub-divided into the ‘self-employed’ courier and the ‘mule’. The former is someone who derives their benefit from the sale (or use) of the drugs upon arrival, while the latter is ‘paid a fee, wage or salary (including the reduction of debts) to transport the drugs’ (p.20).
The final part of the EMCDDA project involved testing the proposed conceptual framework of ‘drug mules’ by means of a survey of academics and practitioners throughout Europe and beyond. The following definition was proposed: A drug courier who is paid, coerced or tricked into transporting drugs across an international border but who has no further commercial interest in the drugs.
The survey revealed that there was a general understanding of the roles that exist within the drug courier market, including that of ‘drug mule’. However, this was not clearly reflected in policy or legislation. The final stage of the research led to two conclusions relevant for future research and practice. First, improved understanding of the international drug market ‘rests not solely on a reliance on hard data sets or in-depth studies but rather using these together to create tools which allow for reliable international comparison’. Second, with regard to drug importation, ‘the role of the drug mule is one that features in many, if not most, markets. Drug mules are reported to be transporting all the major illicit drug types and making full use of all European transport routes’ (p.30).
1.    United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (2008) Drug trafficking as a security threat in West Africa. Vienna: UNODC.www.unodc.org
2.    European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (2012) A definition of ‘drug mules’ for use in a European context. Lisbon: EMCDDA. https://www.emcdda.europa.eu/publications
3.    The first comprehensive study of illicit drug markets in Ireland is due to be published later this year by the National Advisory Committee on Drugs and the Health Research Board.

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