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Nigerian Women Smuggle Drugs into Britain With AM-Deliveries-Nigeria-US

January 24, 1993

LONDON (AP) _ Customs officers at Heathrow Airport were searching Clare Ayemwenre, just off the plane from Nigeria, when some of the 86 condoms full of cocaine in her stomach split open. Soon afterward, she died of an overdose.

While the customs officials were busy with Ms. Ayemwenre, 47, Rosalie Odigie, another drug courier on the flight from Lagos last September, slipped past them and out of the airport.

Within days she, too, died because some of the 30 packets of cocaine she had swallowed burst inside her.

In November a third Nigerian, Lily Ehirobo, 38, suffered a similar fatal overdose. She had swallowed 111 cocaine-filled condoms.

″These women didn’t stand a chance,″ said Howard Sutton of the Customs and Excise agency. ″The drug traffickers who sent them care nothing about them.″

Customs officials say the cocaine found in Ms. Ehirobo’s stomach had a street value of about $75,000.

Despite the value of the drugs they carried, the women stood to earn no more than $4,500 each by acting as ″mules.″ Many couriers are paid much less, said Douglas Tweddle, chief investigatlor for Customs and Excise.

According to government data, many Nigerian mules are women under pressure to pay bills and support families in a country with a per capita annual income of about $250. They often ask no questions of those who offer them money and a plane tickets to London.

″These women are desperate,″ said Olga Heaven, director of the Female Prisoners Welfare Project.

The Home Office says 87 Nigerian women - 5 percent of the female population of British prisons - are serving terms for drug smuggling. Another 110 or so are repeat offenders awaiting deportation, Ms. Heaven said.

Drug traffickers in Nigeria seek out women as mules, she said, because many of the women are struggling to support large families.

″Nigeria is full of market traders and many women see this as just another way of trading,″ Ms. Heaven said. As a former colony, Nigeria has close links with Britain.

In a recent television documentary, a woman who had returned to Nigeria after serving her sentence said she agreed to smuggle drugs so she could pay the two years’ advance rent her landlord demanded.

″No one was willing to give me or lend me anything,″ she said. ″Then a woman came and said ’You have a little baby, there’s something you can do.‴ Release, a drug counseling service, said the women receive sentences of up to 14 years in high-security prisons, with little chance of parole.

″The authorities class all the women in the same category, as criminals, and don’t take circumstances into account,″ Ms. Heaven said.

Customs figures indicate that, in 1991, its officers arrested 59 smuggling suspects from Nigeria, 47 from Colombia and 33 from Jamaica.

American officials say Nigerian nationals accounted for about 40 percent of U.S. Customs arrests in 1990.

Nigeria’s government has taken steps to stem the flow of drugs, setting up a drug enforcement agency that works closely with customs officials abroad.

Under a new law, Nigerians who return after serving sentences for smuggling abroad can be jailed for up to five years for ″bringing the country’s name into disrepute.″

The Nigerian Embassy in London would not comment.

Police posters display photographs of convicted smugglers with the exhortation: ″Keep off drugs and be a success.″

But the traffickers are determined and the mules keep coming.

″One Nigerian woman earned 500 pounds ($750), just enough to pay for her husband’s kidney transplant,″ Ms. Heaven said. He died while she was awaiting trial.

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