LIMA, Peru—Profuse sweating betrayed Nicole Bartscher’s internal panic over having 10 pounds of cocaine strapped to her body as she negotiated her way through Lima’s international airport in 2010 for a flight to the Netherlands.
Policewomen took the heavyset hairdresser aside, told her to strip and found the drug packages bound to her torso and legs. After a body cavity search, they arrested Bartscher and shuttled her to a crowded holding cell, where she slept on the floor, hungry and cold.
But the woman, from Dortmund, Germany, said the suffering and humiliation didn’t end after her sentence was commuted and she was released in March.
Bartscher says she deserved prison for breaking the law, but her life has become a purgatory of poverty and stigmatization. No longer behind bars, she can’t support herself and can’t leave Peru until she has paid the $2,410 fine she owes.
It’s a plight common for foreigners desperate or foolhardy enough to try to spirit cocaine out of Peru through its most vigilantly policed port of embarkation.
Hundreds of foreign “drug mules”—authorities can’t provide a more specific number—are trapped in this Andean nation that recently surpassed Colombia as the world’s No. 1 cocaine producer. Until their parole runs its course, they’ve paid court-mandated fines and navigated bureaucracies to obtain resolutions of rehabilitation and expulsion, they are stuck in Peru. The process can take years.
Getting the expulsion certificate alone can take four months, said Sister Maria, a nun and lawyer who works with the mules and refused to give her last name.
While most of the mules are men, a growing number are women, who find the limbo of parole especially trying. Few paroled female drug couriers manage to get jobs. Most say they opted for smuggling to begin with because they were in financial freefall.
Many are forced to live off charity and some days even go hungry. “A lot of girls prostitute themselves,” said Bartscher.
There’s little sympathy from the Peruvian government, which offers no financial help, or work visas, or plane tickets home.
“The state can’t be the social welfare service of everyone,” said prosecutor Juan Mendoza, who manages money-laundering prosecutions and previously handled drug mule cases. “Citizens who commit crimes need to find ways to readapt and re-socialize.”
The plight of female drug mules in Peru got international attention last year when an Irish and a Scottish woman were caught trying to smuggle 23 pounds of cocaine to Spain. They also pleaded guilty, and got the same sentence as Bartscher—six years and eight months.
In Peru, drug mule sentences range from that minimum to 15 years. But inmates must stay in the country, even if paroled, until their full sentence ends and they’ve paid their fines.
In Spain, by contrast, the crime is punishable by 3 to 9 years, and first-time offenders who get the minimum can be paroled in 18 months.
“It’s torture for us,” the 40-year-old Bartscher said, sitting on a bench at the downtown convent where she lives, cigarette in hand. “Just let us leave is all I ask. We are free, but this is just another prison.”
Bartscher lives with nine other paroled women drug mules at the Roman Catholic convent on a street chaotic with honking horns and choking exhaust.
Another convent houses female parolees in a high-crime district of Callao, by the airport.
Bartscher, who studied music at Muenster University and likes to sing opera, earns only about $70 a month by baking and selling cakes. She said her ex-husband left her for her best friend but sends a little money every three months. She and other parolees say they’re denied work because they are foreigners, and potential employers are suspicious. Those that do offer work can be cheats, the women say.
Bartscher said she was denied wages after working a month in a clothing store.
Ana Maria Imedio, a 48-year-old Spaniard who lost her home and job in the 2009 financial crash, worked six weeks knitting sweaters before realizing her employer had no intention of paying her, she said.
Ninety per cent—or 1,483—of foreigners currently in Peruvian prisons are in for drug trafficking and 253 are women, nearly all arrested as drug mules, according to October statistics, the latest available, from the national bureau of prisons.
Peruvians call the mules “burriers,” a fusion of “burro” and “courier” in this country of considerable Anglophile influence. About half are European, and a growing number are female. The women are principally from Spain, Mexico, Thailand and the Philippines, in that order, according to the prison bureau.
They are mainly from lower middle-class or poor economic backgrounds.
Bartscher said she ventured the risk because she couldn’t make ends meet. She was to get nearly $15,000—a relatively small cut of the more than $100,000 her load would have fetched in Europe. She said she now regrets the crime, which also cost her friends in Germany.
“I don’t think any of them will forgive me,” Bartscher said
Imedio also had her sentence commuted, but cannot leave Peru until she pays her $1,600 fine.
She barely earns enough to eat selling purses on Lima’s street and says a generous friend saved her last month from sleeping on the beach by offering to share her downtown room at no cost.
Spain assists its citizens while they’re imprisoned—Imedio got 60 euros a month—but the money stops when they get out on parole.
Those who cannot pay can try to get their fines forgiven in court.
But Maria del Mar Carvajosa, a 51-year-old Spanish drug mule paroled 2 1/2 years ago, says success often depends on “what judge you happen to get and whether they’ve had a good or bad day.” She can’t afford to pay the bribes routinely demanded in Peru’s prisons and courts, she says.
Carvajosa owes $1,800 and has been without work for months. A relative in Spain sends her rent money, but it’s not enough to pay off the debt. She says her husband, arrested with her, is still in prison despite meeting conditions for parole, because he doesn’t have the cash to “tip” the bureaucrats who would arrange his release.
Imedio tries to remain upbeat, and has resigned herself to life without her 14-year-old daughter, who lives with an aunt in Madrid.
She says her daughter would be worse off if she were to return to Spain and try to provide for the child.
“I have more options for getting ahead here than in Spain,” Imedio said resignedly, explaining that she hopes to open a sandwich shop in Lima.
“It’s sad to say, but that’s how it is.”
Associated Press writers Franklin Briceno in Lima and Jorge Sainz in Madrid contributed to this report.