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International Fliers Choose Coke - Or Heroin

February 1, 1990

NEW YORK (AP) _ In the drug trade, they’re known as swallowers or mules - drug carriers who ingest condoms packed with cocaine or heroin. Federal authorities weren’t surprised that two turned up among the survivors of Avianca Flight 52.

″I wouldn’t be surprised if more turned up,″ said Tony Contorno, supervisory U.S. Customs inspector at John F. Kennedy International Airport. ″My first thought was how many internals would turn up on the flight.″

Authorities say the use of mules is on the increase, mostly among Colombians bringing in cocaine and West Africans transporting heroin.

In the past four months, 59 swallowers carrying 95 pounds of drugs have been arrested at Kennedy, Contorno said. During the 12 months before that, there were 110 arrests with 155 pounds seized. Most of them carry drugs more than 90 percent pure, officials said Wednesday.

″We’ve seen a definite increase,″ said Drug Enforcement Administration spokeswoman Mary Cooper, who estimated every Colombian flight included three or four swallowers. ″It’s a pretty common practice. We’ve seen it for years.″

Some of the stories are mind-boggling. Several years ago, a man was found with 445 condoms in his system; last year, a man loaded with 4.6 pounds of cocaine was arrested. Customs agents spent 23 days at the hospital with one suspect until he passed all the drugs he carried.

The carriers are likely able to swallow such large amounts by anesthetizing their throats and sliding the condoms down, said Dr. Faroque Khan, chairman of the department of medicine at the Nassau County Medical Center.

″This is the hardest method for us to detect. And the people involved are becoming a little more sophisticated,″ said Contorno, one of 60 customs agents checking out an average 100 international flights each day. Many of the mules make multiple trips carrying drugs, officials said.

Potential swallowers are identified by customs agents through questioning, said Contorno. They are then taken to hospitals for X-rays. Contorno said the agents’ success rate is 65 percent to 70 percent.

The use of mules was splashed across newspapers and television after last week’s Avianca crash on Long Island, when two of the surviving passengers attracted police attention.

The two - Jose Orlando Figeroa, 31, and Antonio Zaluaga, 46 - remained under police guard Wednesday at two hospitals. Both will be arrested on drug charges upon their release from the hospital, said Nassau County police spokesman Officer James Higgins.

Zaluaga passed 19 condoms filled with white powder at the Nassau County Medical Center, said hospital spokesman Ed Smith. Figeroa’s case was more dramatic - doctors at North Shore University Hospital, trying to stop internal bleeding after the crash, removed four allegedly drug-filled condoms from his bowel. The man has since passed 10 more.

The mules - who make about $3,000 or receive a U.S. visa for transporting up to $1 million in drugs - don’t run as much of a risk as they did in the early 1980s when the practice started, said Contorno. Better wrapping materials make it unlikely the condoms will give way.

But if they do burst, the result is fast and final - ″instant death,″ said Khan. ″A doctor can’t get in fast enough to get it out.″

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