LAWRENCE, Mass. - Miguel Tavera came to Lawrence last March, living with relatives and working several jobs so he could send money back to his wife and two young daughters in the Dominican Republic.
But when the 27-year-old was laid off several months ago, he had to find another way to make money. He hooked up with two local drug dealers who offered to pay him to fly to the Dominican Republic and carry small, tightly-wrapped packages of heroin back into the country in his stomach.
But no one has seen Tavera since he flew back to Boston on Nov. 18. His family and police believe he is dead.
It's not an uncommon story. Last spring, Merlyn Gonzalez, 26, left Lawrence and flew to the Dominican Republic. She was paid $4,000 to ingest 47 tiny bags of heroin, which carried a street value of approximately $50,000.
Unlike Tavera, Gonzalez made it back to Lawrence. But when she got home, she became ill when some of the bags ripped open, causing an overdose. She was rushed to the hospital, and after the drugs had passed through her system, she was charged with trafficking heroin. She recently pleaded guilty and was sentenced to five years and a day in prison.
Earlier this month, Salem, N.H., police broke open a cocaine-smuggling operation after 25-year-old Mally Cruz Rodriguez of Puerto Rico died of an overdose at the Park View Inn on Route 28.
Rodriguez's twin sister, Nelly, also became sick, but survived after doctors removed 19 cocaine bags from her stomach. She was later charged with illegal possession of a controlled drug.
Tavera, Gonzalez and the Rodriguez sisters are known as drug mules, people who use their bodies to smuggle drugs across international boundaries.
The practice has been used for decades to transport drugs without detection, according to local police. Mules are generally paid a small percentage of what their cargo will yield in illegal drug sales once they get across the border. Their work puts their lives at great risk with every package they swallow.
"If they don't get sick, they win," said Lawrence police Sgt. Mark Ciccarelli, a veteran drug detective.
A sophisticated operation
In Lawrence, detectives believe that mules are leaving and returning to the city with drugs on a regular basis. However, police involvement with mules is limited and largely occurs only if a drug mule becomes ill or dies.
Lawrence police Detective Robert LeFebre met Gonzalez last March, after she was admitted to the intensive care unit at Lawrence General Hospital. An emergency room doctor said she displayed all of the tell-tale signs of an opiate overdose: Her pupils were as small as pinpoints, she was nodding off, her complexion was pale and her respiration was low.
She later told LeFebre she swallowed the drugs to pay off a shoplifting fine handed down in a New Hampshire court.
"She thought the fine was $4,000. It was actually $400," the detective said.
Swallowing packages of drugs and capturing them after they pass through the body may seem a crude, even desperate way to make money. But police say the process is sophisticated and driven by drug dealers who do everything from give bonuses to recruiters, buy plane tickets and provide transportation to and from airports. They also prepare and coach the mules so they can ingest as many drugs as possible.
"It's a huge network," said Ciccarelli, noting that dealers are always looking for prospective mules.
Baby carrots or hard-boiled eggs are often used as practice for swallowing the drug packages, which are similar in size. Cocaine and heroin are often sealed in balloons, surgical gloves or condoms. Bigger drug dealers use a machine that enshrouds the drug in a thin layer of nylon, LeFebre said.
Before making a trip back to the United States, the mules will clean out their system using laxatives, making as much room as possible in their digestive system.
As they swallow the bags, they are accompanied by a "counter" who keeps track of how much drug the mules are holding and how much it is worth, LeFebre said.
For the trip back, mules will take Immodium and prescription Lomotil to prevent them from going to the bathroom and releasing any of the internal cargo.
"Once they get home, the process starts again in reverse," LeFebre explained.
In Lawrence, Tavera's family said they know of a Prospect Hill apartment where mules go to pass the drugs after their trips. Police checked the area, but found no sign of the missing man.
Police admitted that many mules are able to go about their business completely undetected by authorities. But the same mules can't be used too frequently, or they could be recognized by airport security and customs agents, police said.
There have also been cases in other parts of the country where mules were killed and gutted for the lucrative stashes in their stomachs.
"It's a way to make quick money, but it's not a healthy one," Lawrence police Chief John Romero said. "It's a huge chance to take."
Family fears the worst
Tavera's disappearance remains an open missing persons case with Lawrence police. But his family is not optimistic.
When he came to Lawrence last spring, he moved in with his aunt Teresa Gonzalez of Railroad Street. He enrolled in an asbestos removal class and started working with his uncle, Teresa's brother, Noe Gonzalez.
In October, he was laid off. He found temporary jobs cleaning offices at two companies that later went bankrupt. He couldn't collect unemployment because he hadn't worked anywhere long enough.
Without work, Tavera spent his days roaming the streets and over time became more distant, his family said. They believe he was recruited to be a drug mule by two men he knew from his hometown of Nagua in the Dominican Republic.
Without telling anyone, he left for the Dominican Republic. Before he came back, Tavera called his wife and told her he was boarding a plane to Boston. The couple has two daughters, ages 5 and 1.
"He did it for the money because he didn't have a job, and he was desperate," Teresa Gonzalez said.
Since reporting him missing, Tavera's family has looked everywhere: under bridges, in the river, in the canal, and through wooded areas in the Prospect Hill section of the city.
"There is not one home where we haven't knocked looking for him," his aunt said. "We just want to know what they have done with Miguel."
The disappearance has taken a toll on the family. Tavera's mother is in a hospital in Puerto Rico. And Teresa Gonzalez has lost 15 pounds and has trouble sleeping.
They just want to be able to say goodbye.
"All we want is to find his body so we can give it a proper burial," Noe Gonzalez said.
Author: Jill Harmacinski
Pubdate: Sat, 20 Dec 2008
Source: Eagle-Tribune, The (MA)