ICYMI - NYT: “Drug Traffickers Turn to New Type of Courier: Seniors”

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Drug Traffickers Turn to New Type of Courier: Seniors
By Ron Nixon
February 10, 2016

In what law enforcement officials describe as a new front in international smuggling, global traffickers and cartels are increasingly turning to a new source for couriers to smuggle drugs across international borders: vulnerable American older adults.

The traffickers deceive seniors with promises of prizes or relationships, setting them up to unknowingly try to carry luggage filled with cocaine or other items through customs, hoping they will not arouse suspicions. Such cases have been seen in nearly a dozen foreign countries, officials say. Details of the smuggling and a counteroperation that officials called Operation Cocoon were disclosed by the Department of Homeland Security during a hearing on Wednesday before the Senate Special Committee on Aging.

Officials from Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Customs and Border Protection agency are working with international law enforcement agencies to combat the growing deception, officials said. The Homeland Security investigation into drug smuggling that targeted older people began in 2013.
Alan Scott Brown, the acting assistant director for investigative programs at Homeland Security Investigations, a division of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said the agency had managed to save some seniors — including a 97-year-old man — from becoming drug couriers by stopping them before they could leave the country.  

But he added that some of the people, after years or months of prodding, were so trusting of members of the drug gangs that “they don’t believe the truth when confronted.”

The two agencies say they have worked with foreign counterparts to intercept couriers, seizing a total of 272 kilograms of methamphetamine, 209 kilograms of cocaine, four kilograms of ecstasy and 11 kilograms of heroin. About 116 unsuspecting seniors — the oldest person taken into custody was 87 — have been arrested by foreign governments in smuggling cases, including in New Zealand, Australia, Brazil, India, Fiji and Japan. Eighty-three United States citizens have been arrested abroad since 2013 and identified by Immigration and Customs Enforcement as victims of this scheme through Operation Cocoon.

“The criminals who set this chain of events into motion are cruel, but very, very clever,” said Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, who is the chairwoman of the Senate Special Committee on Aging
J. Bryon Martin, 77, a retired pastor from Maine, is one of many American seniors serving time in a foreign prison after being accused of drug smuggling.     

Andrew Martin, his son, testified at the hearing that his father was arrested in July after being caught at an airport in Madrid with nearly two kilograms of cocaine worth about $450,000.
The elder Mr. Martin had met a person online who he thought was a young woman named “Joy” and struck up a relationship that lasted for five years, his son said.   

She claimed to be from a wealthy North African family and said she needed Mr. Martin’s help in obtaining real estate documents for property her family owned in Peru. The woman asked him to go to South America to get the documents and then bring them to her in London.

While in Peru, Mr. Martin was given two sealed packages and a plane ticket to London with a layover in Madrid. He was arrested after security personnel at the airport in Spain noticed the packages and opened them. Mr. Martin, who his son said was in poor health, is serving a six-year sentence for drug smuggling.

“Before this conviction, my dad had never been charged with even a misdemeanor,” Andrew Martin said.
Officials say they do not know precisely how many older adults have been deceived into becoming drug couriers. They say it is also very hard to catch the criminals behind the deception, because most operate outside the United States and have become highly sophisticated in disguising their activities