Drug mules: Swallowed by the illicit drug trade

"My mother decided to meet with someone - I didn't know who that someone was. It was a man. She sold me to a trafficker when I was 14-years-old. I was forced into prostitution and forced to do labour. I was bonded and taken from place to place."

This is DJ's story. DJ was one of the million persons trafficked each year.  Victims like her are exploited for forced labour, organ trade and prostitution.  Taken from place to place, DJ was treated like a slave and forced to work for her master. But it did not end here.

"When the traffickers got to know that I held an American passport, they realized that they could use me to mule illicit drugs into the United States of America. I was instructed to swallow drugs and board a plane.

We went to the airport and there I met other victims. I just wanted to scream and run and tell people, but my master was right next to me and he continued to say that if I said anything he'd kill me."

Many victims of human trafficking are used to ferry drugs across international borders. Popularly known as 'drug mules', the victims are made to swallow balloons containing illicit drugs and are then transported across borders.  Once they have reached their destination, these balloons are retrieved from the victim's body.

The balloons are made with multilayered condoms and are often force fed to the victim. The traffickers use a special machine to open the condom and put drugs into it. On many occasions, the drug mules are first given a soup laced with drugs to numb their throats. The soup is very oily and makes the balloons slide down their throat. The victim's mouth can also  be sprayed with anesthesia, enabling them to swallow up to 120 balloons. A drug mule may be forced to swallow up to one kg of illicit drugs and this painful procedure can lead to serious injuries in the throat. Tiny packets of illicit drugs transported by drug mules

During the journey, they are given medication to inhibit bowel movement. Once they have reached their destination, they are fed laxatives and the balloons pass through their bodies. This medically dangerous way of transporting drugs  can lead and has led to the death of  persons, if and when balloons rupture within the body. Stomach acids can sometimes cause the rupture of the balloons and death is very quick.

DJ says: "I was forced to swallow 86 balloons and taken to the airport. At the airport, one of the victims became very ill. She said to me that a balloon containing the drugs had popped in her body. She collapsed right there. It all happened so fast.

I watched the innocent girl die, it was painful and especially when you have drugs inside you.  I was crying and didn't know whom to turn to for help. The flight attendants were unhelpful because they thought I was drunk, so I had no choice but to keep shut. I went through a lot of pain and torture. I was petrified."

The combined impact of human trafficking and drug trafficking on the victim is immense physical abuse and mental torture.

DJ says: "All the mental and physical abuse was more than you can imagine. Now that I have escaped, I have to do everything possible today to help change the system. "

DJ was one of the few lucky persons to have escaped from her trafficker. She is now a voice for thousands of survivors of human trafficking who have gone through similar circumstances as she did.

UNODC would like to thank Ms Rani Hong of Tronie Foundation, who shared DJ's story with us. Ms Hong has mentored DJ through the Tronie Foundation's Global Survivor Leadership Program.