Cassie Sainsbury: just another drug mule?

Cassie Sainsbury was arrested at El Dorado International Airport in Bogota, Colombia on 11 April 2017, about to board her flight back to Adelaide, Australia. Officials allegedly found 5.8kgs of cocaine concealed in packaged headphones. Cassie’s family claim she was set up.

Some background

Professional drug traffickers are skilled and successful at moving their drugs around the world. They are organised and efficient, minimizing their risk and maximizing their opportunities. To do this, they leave as little to chance as possible by retaining as much control as possible over their drugs and any person with whom they are entrusted.

Traffickers are therefore highly, highly unlikely to dupe unsuspecting tourists into becoming unwitting mules by planting drugs on them. What if the person noticed the extra weight (especially given that most international travelers are right on the limit)? What if the person discovered the drugs and threw them out or contacted police? How would they retrieve them at the other end? No, the unaware unsuspecting completely innocent tourist dupe is really just an urban legend.

More typically traffickers develop a relationship with the potential mule so that the person trusts them and is easier to manipulate into doing their bidding. They also have particular targets: people who are desperate for money (due to debts or greed), naive, ignorant and often vulnerable.

Trafficking through airports often takes the form of a “drug mule trip” where a person’s holiday is arranged and paid for by the traffickers with the promise of more money at the end for delivering a package. The mule is almost always told the package contains drugs; otherwise it is implied by the trip and payment.

Someone develops a relationship with the chosen potential mule over time, then suggests the trip. It is arranged by the traffickers. Someone else is assigned to look after the mule in the country they are visiting, sometimes quite attentively, sometimes just keeping tabs. The trip is short (a few days to a fortnight), usually it is an individual traveling alone, and it is generally confined to one place, as this enables more control. The mule’s luggage also factors in the room for the weight and bulk of the drugs. If the mule makes it back, the drugs are given to the friend at the origin, or if they are going elsewhere, to another contact.

Recently, face-to-face relationships as a starting point have been replaced by traffickers developing fake personal or business relationships with people over the internet. They then encourage the person to come visit, sometimes also paying for the trip, although in these cases they often don’t even have to bother shelling out that money. This person is then asked to take a package back to give to the trafficker’s friend or associate, with the idea being they won’t question it given the relationship. In these instances, traffickers may avoid telling people the nature of the package.

In situations where a person is targeted as a tourist already in the country with the drugs, they are usually on a longer trip (a 3 month – 1 year working holiday) so the trafficker has time to determine their suitability and develop a trusting relationship. Then they’ll suggest the person just take a package on their return home or to another country on their travels.

It is difficult and inefficient to target tourists on short trips. How would they ensure they would find ones going to the right destination at the right time? How could they ensure they have room in their luggage? What if they got suspicious, as many travelers would? The risks are too great.

Traffickers do not just have one random person acting as a mule for them. There are usually many at a time, potentially going to different destinations. This increases the chances of at least some drugs getting through. Often one mule will be offered up as a bribe or decoy to customs officials so the majority get through. The bribe/decoy mule typically carries a smaller amount (1kg or so) so the traffickers lose as little product as possible. If there was an unsuspecting or genuinely clueless tourist dupe, they would almost certainly fall into the bribe category and be found with the smaller amount.

The drugs are delivered to the mule at the last minute to avoid detection and limit the possibility of them losing their nerve. In the case of someone with whom there is a “genuine” relationship who thinks the package is innocent, the traffickers still try to limit the time they have to discover otherwise.

The drugs are packaged as the traffickers require it, not fashioned into something that suits the mule’s purposes. Cover stories are never about protecting the mule in case of arrest, but are merely designed to make them feel secure, as though they have a back up in case they are caught. This is why there is generally a story from a knowing mule about a gift or the sudden acquisition of a new suitcase or a strange purchase that does not seem to make sense. By contrast, anyone unsuspecting or genuinely duped does not have a relationship to the package; it is simply something a friend asked them to take.


So what does that tell us about Cassie Sainsbury’s situation?

Cassie’s family have claimed she was on a “working holiday” in Bogota, Colombia from 3-11 April (8 days). Colombia has no working holiday Visa arrangements for Australians, and working holidays generally are almost always 3+ months.

There is no believable or consistent explanation for the work she was doing on her trip. Her sister claims it was to do with her personal training business, yet she has not worked as one for over a year, and has in fact let her some of her registration lapse. Colombia would also seem an odd place for a short trip to look at start up and development opportunities for such a business. Meanwhile her fiancé claims the trip was undertaken as part of her work for a cleaning business that has national and international clients. No company has confirmed this, and flying an Australian to Colombia (at an expense of at least $2000) for something related to cleaning seems extremely unlikely.

According to Cassie, as relayed by her family, she was befriended by a helpful local who took her around for a lot of sightseeing. This too is inconsistent with a working holiday. She also remained in Bogota only, despite the expense of traveling there typically inclining a person to pack in as much of the region as possible.

When Cassie was to fly home she was arrested when officials discovered 5.8kgs of cocaine concealed in headphones in her luggage. Cassie’s explanation is that she had wanted to get these headphones as gifts for family, friends and her bridal party and her helpful local friend happened to be able to get them cheaper.

A stack of headphones are odd gifts, especially from Colombia, which is not known for its cheap high quality electronics. It is not like Thailand or China or other parts of Asia; rather expats living there have confirmed electronics are difficult to come by and expensive. Pictures released by the Colombian authorities after her arrest show headphones that can be purchased for around $20 online.

The headphones were delivered the day of Cassie’s departure, already packaged. She had the room to accommodate the size of the parcel/s and its weight in her luggage, including the extra 5.8kgs. She has stated she didn’t open the package/s to check. More of the released pictures show 18 (not the 15 claimed) packages in black plastic in all different shapes and sizes, which is completely inconsistent with having multiples of the same headphones. They also look decidedly unlike wrapped headphones. If you were anticipating 15 sets of headphones you’d take a look.

Cassie’s story is completely consistent with that of a drug mule trip, organised by a contact in Australia, arranged and paid for by the traffickers, with a contact “looking after” her during her time in the country where she was to collect the drugs. That she has a fiancé with whom she was enjoying life rules out the possibility that this is any sort of internet love scam.

Even if we entertain the idea that the traffickers broke with their otherwise consistently successful pattern and set out to randomly target and dupe her in that short space of time, there are too many holes.

How could they ensure that she would want headphones, the very thing in which the cocaine was concealed? Cassie’s family has consistently stated that she wanted the headphones and he procured cheaper ones for her; there has been no comment that the headphones were suggested to her by her Colombian friend. The traffickers aren’t going to hurriedly fashion headphones with cocaine to fit her needs. Why would they place such a large amount of cocaine in the control of someone they had barely developed a relationship with? What if she reacted to the excess weight? What if she opened the package? What if she changed her mind and left them behind? That is leaving far too much to chance.

There have been instances of baggage handlers being exposed as part of drug trafficking operations, including a rather substantial and far-reaching ring at Sydney airport. However, that is not relevant to this situation. In the event of baggage handler to baggage handler trafficking, the package is placed after the person deposits their bag and they are unaware it was even in their luggage. Cassie is not disputing that the package/a (headphones) containing the cocaine was/were placed by her when she was packing. Baggage handler involvement would therefore only relate to retrieval of the package and doesn’t impact the circumstances surrounding them being in Cassie’s luggage in the first place.

Colombian officials deal with drug mules on a daily basis. They are aware of how the traffickers operate and the circumstances and stories of the mules. This situation will not be unique or surprising to them. Indeed, Colombia’s ports and airports director of their anti-narcotics police has stated that they don’t find her explanation credible. “All mules claim they didn’t know about the drugs, but they know what they are doing.” They can access information about her travel into the country, how the tickets were booked, her accommodation and her movements, if they didn’t already know before she arrived at the airport for departure. Colombian (indeed, most South American) authorities are wise to these sorts of trips and she may even have been flagged on arrival.


The risks of going public

Because Cassie’s situation is not uncommon, mules are usually arrested, charged, tried and convicted with no fanfare. However, the Colombians appear to be sharing more about this case, at least to the degree that they are making comment to media and releasing information. This comes directly on the heels of Cassie’s family’s public appeal and media engagement, and would appear to be an (understandable) response to what has been said or implied by the family.

This is one component of why it is dangerous to court attention in these situations, especially when the comments are ill thought out.

The family claimed “setup”, criticized Colombia for its corruption and misrepresented the state of the prison in which she is held (overcrowding was exaggerated tenfold). Even if the corruption were true – and nothing in this situation so far suggests she is a victim of anything of the sort – it is unwise to throw insults at the country she is now at the mercy of. That will at best make them less charitable and at worst antagonise them. They may feel a need to respond or make an example out of her.

Publicity invites scrutiny and it goes both ways. The spotlight has been turned on Cassie, which has not only exposed holes that will be useful to Colombian authorities, but has also created a situation where members of the public are doing the research for the authorities and casting Cassie in a very bad light. Beyond the inconsistency of the family’s comments about her work situation, her supposed current volunteer work for the CFS has been exposed as false; her personal training credentials and business have been discredited; and there are very damning suggestions that she and her fiancé enjoyed a partying lifestyle they could not legitimately afford.

The family’s publicity has also backed Cassie into a corner with her story. She is stuck with the inconsistencies about her working holiday and the purchase of headphones as gifts, and is limited as to the mitigating circumstances she can present. She looks involved in and knowledgeable about the trafficking, especially with the images of the packaged “headphones”. If she hadn’t stated that she knew he headphone packages were in her bag, she might stand a better chance of looking naive rather than deceitful.

The media is not your friend in these situations. They care entirely about their commercial interests, not at all about your welfare. They will feed the story for their own ends, regardless of the impact on the person at the centre. The bigger it becomes the more they milk it.

It may appear from the outside that Schapelle Corby and her family’s cries of innocence in the face of guilt and appeals to the public and media worked out well, but that is far from the reality. For all the money and attention they received, she almost certainly received a longer sentence due to her illfounded attempt to prove her innocence and the insults directed at the Indonesians, which only acted to (justifiably) antagonise them. It was also the intense scrutiny that eventually ripped apart her story, and she is now so notorious that it will be difficult for her to live any sort of normal pleasant life in Australia.

These matters are best handled quietly, honestly and with respect for the jurisdiction in which the person is detained.

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Cassie Sainsbury: just another drug mule?

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