As the drug menace continues to cut short the lives of young people around the world, Uganda is increasingly being used as a transit route to the rest of the world. This has seen drug lords recruit youn Ugandans in the murky trade, writes Charles Etukuri
Over a nine-month period Olivia made four trips to London, each time swallowing 120 pellets of cocaine in order to smuggle them through the airports.
In total she took 480 pellets in the four trips and was paid.
Once, she narrowly escaped and three of her friends are now in British jails. But the turning point was when she witnessed a drug baron rip through a man's stomach to get the pellets out after he failed to defeacate soon enough.
Olivia is one of the few people who have joined drug trafficking and come out alive. Over a nine month period, she made four trips to England, smuggling cocaine in her stomach.
The first born in a family of six, Olivia was the sole bread winner, yet she did not have a stable source of income. Her parents were ageing and poor.
One day, while she was wondering where to get money to pay school fees for her three siblings, a friend approached her with a proposal. She would be tasked to swallow pellets, travel to London and be paid $4,000 (about sh10m). "Alleluiaha!" she exclaimed.
To test her abilities, she was driven to a posh house in Muyenga, a Kampala suburb, and given two pellets to swallow. At first, she was frightened, but she swallowed them successfully. Next, she had to prepare for the journey. "I was given $1,000 (about 2.4m) to buy myself nice clothes, and leave some money for my family since I was going to travel that same week."
The night before travelling, she was driven to Bugolobi, a Kampala suburb, to a house occupied by a Nigerian. She made an oath never to reveal any information, and then swallowed the pellets. One, two, three, four,.... 30, then she paused.
Her throat was burning. She hated it, but no one would let her stop. "I spent the whole night swallowing. By morning, I had swallowed 120 pellets."
When she was done stuffing the pellets into her stomach, she was given a tablet that causes constipation to prevent her from passing out the drugs before reaching her destination.
Her flight was set to take off at Entebbe Airport at around 1:30pm. She had been cautioned not to eat anything on the plane, except drink water. She was also given details about how to find her contact in London, and further cautioned not to move anyhow, lest she draws suspicion.
In London, her hosts took her to a posh house and gave her anti-constipation medicine with milk. They then gave her gloves and ushered her into the bathroom. But it took three days to release all the 120 pellets.
"It was so painful," she recalls. They kept her in the house for two weeks, paid her and then she returned to Uganda with loads of money.
Two months later, they approached her for a second assignment. "This time, when I got to Gatwick Airport in the UK, a customs officer stopped me and demanded to carry out a body search."
The body search did not yield any results. Still suspicious, they took her for a urine test. Initially she could not discharge any urine. "They gave me 12 cups of water then two cups of hot tea. After sometime, I passed out some urine, which was taken for analysis."
Half an hour later, the urine test results showed nothing significant and they released her. She was lucky this time she had not taken the medicine that induces constipation. Had she taken this medicine, the urine test would have detected it.
By the time she was released, she had spent three hours at the airport, and the journey from Entebbe to London had taken 10 hours. This time round, the host gave her half pay, saying she had not swallowed the correct number of pellets.
"I knew I had swallowed 120, but they insisted that I had swallowed only 97. I could not argue with them because I knew they could kill me." At the fourth trip, she witnessed her worst scare in life.
One of the drug mules was taking too long to discharge the pellets and the impatient drug lord ripped his stomach to get them out. "I said to myself that I had been lucky for four times, I am not going to be lucky again. I made up my mind that I would not go back."
The decision came early enough to save her life, but too late to protect her health. Today, she is in and out of hospital over stomach complications. Besides, she keeps getting memories of a man's stomach being ripped open in front of her.
Still, she consoles herself that worse things could have happened to her. Today, three of her friends are languishing in British jails.
Uganda as route
The Police say Ugandans easily fall prey because international drug cartels are now targeting Uganda as a transit route. The drugs are smuggled into Uganda, sometimes concealed as building tiles or tile cement.
"You find the importation documents reading tiles, but beneath the tiles, they conceal drugs," says Amadia Fabian, the head of the Anti-Narcotics Department at the Uganda Police Force. Some containers are marked powdered milk, rice, ballpoint pens and dry cells. Sometimes the containers are redesigned to create a fake bottom with drugs being hidden between the fake and the real bottom.
In Uganda, the drug barons then repackage the drugs and conceal them in various ways. For example, the United Kingdom Police recently intercepted a consignment of fresh vegetables that had 1.3 tonnes of Hashish hidden among them, packed in a box marked as fresh vegetables from Uganda. Fearing arrest, the directors of the company exporting the packages have since gone into hiding. Some of the drugs are stuffed in crafts or clothes before being exported.
As the drugs move through the country, Ugandans bear the brunt. They trick, blackmail or convince young men and women to begin trafficking the drugs to other countries.
"Once the drugs have entered the country, the drug barons, through their existing networks, recruit innocent young Ugandans to act as couriers," Amadia explained.
Many of these Ugandans then get arrested in different countries. The Police say over 70 Ugandans are currently facing the death sentence across 15 major cities in China over drug trafficking. Giving an example of Moses Abigaba held in China for drug trafficking, Amadia says: "He was given a package to deliver to a contact in China. Unfortunately, he was arrested at the airport after the airport authorities discovered he was actually carrying drugs. He is now awaiting his death sentence."
Last year, a Ugandan university graduate narrated to Sunday Vision how a job recruitment agency duped her and took her to China, where she was being forced into sex slavery. The same agent tricked her into unknowingly carrying packs of drugs stitched into jeans trousers.
Fortunately for her, she was not caught. It was only when the recipient in China opened the package that she realised she had delivered drugs and a bunch of passports.
Last year, a German national, Peter Volker, was arrested with four kilogrammes of Cocaine. He was taken to court and deported. In a chilling interview with the German Police, Volker said there was a huge network of international drug dealers, who prefer using Entebbe Airport to re-export drugs to the western countries.
Some of them come disguised as investors. According to reports by the United Nations released last year, 30 - 35 metric tonnes of heroin from Afghanistan passes through East Africa each year. Following major drug seizures in Kenya and the vigilance of the security operatives, many traffickers are now avoiding Kenyan airports.
Police records in 2010 indicate 7.5kgs of heroine and 5kg of cocaine were intercepted at Entebbe Airport.
However, the figures for this year seem to be rising. By March, the Police had intercepted 3.4kg of cocaine and 3.4kg of heroine.
Amadia observes that the checks at Entebbe Airport are not adequate. "The scanners you see at the airport are meant for bombs and metallic objects," he said.
He explained that despite the existence of the Police sniffer dogs at the airport, "they only detect an external package, but when the drug is swallowed, they cannot detect anything". Amadia adds: "A person who has swallowed the drugs usually does not eat food on the plane for fear of getting stomach problems and passing out the drugs before reaching their destination."
He said much of the trade is going on undetected because of the secretive nature of the drug kingpins' operations. The business in Uganda has also been fuelled by the influx of illegal immigrants from Nigeria, Pakistan, India, China and some Europeans who have settled here.
Weak laws and political involvement
The Police explain that drug dealers are turning to Uganda as a transit route because of porous borders, less stringent airport checks and weaker laws.
Those found guilty of dealing in or transporting drugs are liable to pay a Â¬ ne of sh2m or go to jail for one to three years. Usually, they pay the fine. "When we arrest them, we find them with no money, but once their sentences are passed, the money is immediately paid," says Amadia.
The Narcotics Drug and Psychotic Substance Control Bill 2007 proposes a stronger punishment, but it has been lying in Parliament for several years without being discussed and passed into law. In the meantime, Uganda continues to be a soft target.
There is also the real fear of high level political involvement in narcotics drugs in Uganda. In 2008, Toro's information minister, Rose
Rosalindi Birungi, was arrested at Heathrow Airport with a consignment of multi-billion drugs. She was also an aide to a top political guru, had a diplomatic passport a privilege accorded to few Ugandans.
She is currently serving a 12-year sentence.
Uganda Police lacks equipment
Despite relying on low-tech methods, the Police have been able to intercept signiÂ¬ficant quantities of drugs at Entebbe Airport.
With poor facilitation, the Uganda Police rely on low-tech methods such as the use of sniffer dogs and monitoring what they regard as risky fights, especially those coming from countries like Pakistan, Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Afghanistan.
"In most cases, when we Â¬ find a Ugandan coming from such suspicious places, we put him on our monitoring radar. Sometimes we carry out random searches on passengers and planes suspected to be carrying drugs," says Amadia.
He adds that the fact that some drug dealers slip through does not mean the Uganda Police are inefficient.
"Even in Europe where there are sophisticated machines, tonnes of drugs are being shipped in yearly."
The war on drugs has drawn in agencies like the immigration department, Internal Security Organisation, External Security Organisation and Uganda Investment Authority.
However, their efforts would achieve more if they got better equipment and the law provided for tougher punishment for offenders.