One week ago, J. Bryon Martin, a 77-year-old former pastor from Dresden, Maine, was serving the first year of a six-year sentence in a Spanish prison. With failing health, Mr. Martin faced the prospect of spending the rest of his life incarcerated, thousands of miles from his home and loved ones. His crime? Mr. Martin was the victim of a scam that tricked him into unknowingly transporting illegal drugs across an international border.
The scam that ensnared Mr. Martin was one of the worst scams I have uncovered through my work as Chairman of the Senate Aging Committee. Mr. Martin’s heartbreaking case was the subject of a February hearing on drug cartels that deceive unsuspecting seniors into smuggling illicit substances across international borders. The scam is particularly pernicious as it preys upon the trusting nature of seniors as well as the loneliness some experience later in life.
It begins when a criminal organization draws an unsuspecting senior into a web of deceit by first forming a personal online relationship. The criminals then trick the senior into traveling overseas under a pretense, such as collecting money that has been won in a “lottery,” recovering important documents, or meeting their online “friend.” The criminals cover the cost of international travel for their victim and often create a complicated itinerary that requires the senior to travel to at least one other country and pick up a package or suitcase en route. Unbeknownst to the senior, these packages have drugs hidden inside.
Mr. Martin developed an online friendship with an individual he believed was named “Joy” but who was actually a scammer. “Joy” asked Mr. Martin to travel to South America, pick up some sealed packages she claimed contained real estate documents, and deliver them to her in Europe. Mr. Martin was unaware that the sealed packages actually contained approximately four pounds of cocaine. The contraband was discovered by authorities during a stopover in Madrid, and the unsuspecting courier, Mr. Martin, was arrested, convicted, and sentenced to six years in a Spanish prison.
Fortunately, Mr. Martin’s tragic story had a happy ending. After learning about Mr. Martin’s incarceration, my staff and I worked tirelessly to raise his case to the appropriate authorities and help facilitate his release. In March, I was joined by the Ranking Member and several members of the Committee in writing a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry, urging him to work with foreign governments to reexamine the cases of scam victims like Mr. Martin. In addition, my office called the U.S. Embassy in Spain and the State Department every single week, pushing them to intervene to secure Mr. Martin’s early release on humanitarian grounds.
As a result of our advocacy, the Spanish government granted Mr. Martin a humanitarian release on June 13, and he has been reunited with his family. I was delighted to have the opportunity to call Mr. Martin and welcome him home. I so am pleased that Mr. Martin is back in the United States where he belongs and appreciate the efforts made by Secretary of State Kerry and James Costos, the United States Ambassador to Spain.
This welcome result, however, does not diminish the seriousness of this particularly cruel and growing scam. It is estimated that at least 145 Americans have been arrested overseas after becoming ensnared by these smuggling operations and that some 30 remain in foreign custody.
This scam, as bizarre and convoluted as it seems, is increasingly common. At our February hearing, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Patrol officials described a new joint operation dubbed “Operation Cocoon” between U.S. and international law enforcement agencies to combat this scam. So far, Operation Cocoon has prevented at least 16 seniors from becoming victims and foreign authorities have arrested 15 subjects affiliated with international criminal organizations.
The criminals, global drug traffickers, who set this chain of events into motion are cruel, but also very, very clever. Federal law enforcement needs to continue a vigorous and determined effort, which is not an easy task given the challenges posed by international boundaries.
In addition, it is essential that seniors and their families become aware of these criminals’ techniques and take action to protect themselves and their loved ones from these heartless criminals. The offer of free airline tickets should be a red flag, and all travelers should refuse requests to convey packages or luggage on behalf of someone they do not know.
It is wonderful that Mr. Martin is back home, safe and sound, but it is also outrageous that the individuals who perpetrate these crimes against seniors like Mr. Martin remain free, likely targeting more unsuspecting people, while the victims languish in foreign prisons, thousands of miles from their families. I will continue to work to ensure that law enforcement has the tools it needs to pursue these criminals and to raise awareness so that fewer seniors fall victim to this scam.