July 21, 2004
A new, independent movie sheds light on the chilling reality of drug smugglers. "Maria Full of Grace" is the story of a 17-year-old girl who lives in a small town in Colombia and comes into the United States as a drug "mule" -- someone who smuggles drugs into other countries.
Maria agrees to swallow 62 latex-wrapped pellets of heroin in exchange for $5,000 and an improved livelihood for her mother, sister and grandmother, who depend on her financially.
The film, which has won awards at the Sundance Film Festival and the Berlin Film Festival, is a harrowing case of art imitating life at an unspeakably cruel level.
In the real world, Maria's story gets repeated on a weekly basis.
In 2003, 145 drug mules were intercepted at New York's JFK Airport (38 women, 107 men). Through the end of April of this year, 57 have been caught, reports the U.S. Customs.
"And it's not only Colombians," Col. Omar Gonzalez, an officer at El Dorado Airport in Bogota, Colombia, asserts. More than a third of the 229 mules caught last year at his airport were foreigners from Italy, Spain, Ecuador and the United States, among other places.
American consumers spend an estimated $46 billion every year on cocaine and heroin, according to the book "More Terrible Than Death" by Robin Kirk. By some estimates, Colombia provides two-thirds of the world's cocaine, which is hundreds of tons each year. Some of it enters the United States in the intestinal tracts of Colombian "mules" who risk everything to escape poverty.
In 2002, the unemployment rate in the South American nation was 15 percent, with 80 percent of rural Colombians living in poverty, The Economist reported. The average annual income in Colombia in 2002 was $1,830, according to the World Bank Group. A "mule" who smuggles heroin into the United States can earn between $5,000 and $8,000 for a single trip.
For many, the monetary reward outweighs the risk of being caught or even dying in the process.
The illicit smuggling operation starts with the recruitment of a person (generally a young man or woman from a rural area) in desperate need for money. Handlers prepare the cargo by packing about two pounds of the powder into thumb-sized pellets wrapped in latex from condoms or surgical gloves.
On average, a "mule" ingests 80-125 pellets, according to the Department of Justice. In total, the person will transport about two pounds of heroin in his or her system, with an estimated street value in a place like New York City of $350,000, reports The New York Times.
After their intestines have been packed, they head to the airport with false papers and spending money in hand. If a pellet burst inside the stomach, the carrier will die of a drug overdose. One Colombian residing in New York for the past 25 years has helped repatriate the bodies of more than 400 drug mules back home to be buried, the movie notes.
Though "Maria Full of Grace" is a small independent film, it gets to the heart of the misery and desperation of thousands of Colombians and other Latin Americans. Without flashy special effects or big fanfare, the movie captures what no summer blockbuster this year will -- the frailness of life lived in desperation.
Juleyka Lantigua is a freelance journalist based in New York City. She can be reached at email@example.com.