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News Clippings

(29 April 1996) This report appeared in Sunday's edition of The Daily Telegraph

How the drugs barons use live animals as carriers
By Tom Baldwin and Rachel Sylvester

MILLIONS of pounds worth of cocaine and heroin hidden in live snakes and other exotic animals has been smuggled across borders, amid mounting concern at the links between wildlife imports and the drugs trade.

Customs officers at Heathrow recently seized heroin packed into the shells of live snails. Quarantine staff also discovered cannabis stuffed into the head of an antelope.

In Rome, investigators found heroin hidden in elephant tusks. And 33 kilos of cocaine solution were recovered from water containing tropical fish being imported into the United States.

Hans Ellehaage, wildlife crime specialist for Interpol, said: "It is generally believed among law enforcement bodies that wildlife is being increasingly used to import drugs."

British officials fear drugs may be pouring into the country because wildlife imports - dead and alive - entering the country are hardly ever checked. Heathrow has the only team of specialist investigators in the country, and imports coming in by other routes are rarely searched.

"Generally animals do not get checked," said Robert Quest, head of the animal quarantine division at the airport. "If they come in at Gatwick, for example, the chances of the shipment being examined are virtually nil."

Tristan Bradfield, an animal expert based at Heathrow, admitted that Customs officials were worried. He said: "The point is we do not know how much does not get detected."

At least three shipments of live snakes containing cocaine have been seized in Miami
In the US, drugs worth up to $26 million a year have been found in animal imports. But Samuel LaBudde of the Endangered Species Project said: "Only five per cent of shipments are inspected. The real value of this contraband may be approaching $500 million every year."
At least three shipments of live snakes containing cocaine have been seized in Miami. On one occasion, Customs agents carried out an operation called "Cocaine Constrictor" after being tipped off that Colombian cartels had stuffed the reptiles with condoms containing the drug.

A total of 305 five-foot-long boa constrictors were discovered. In each case, eight ounces of cocaine had been forced up the snake's rectum, which had then been sewn up. All but 63 died. There is evidence that the same method is being used to import drugs into Europe. Interpol has uncovered at least one case of snakes stuffed with narcotics at Stockholm airport. And Jean-Patrick Le Duc of the Switzerland-based Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species has confirmed that his organisation is investigating the links between drug smugglers and the trade in animals.

The relationship between organised criminals such as the Chinese Triads, the Japanese yakuza, Russian gangsters and the Mafia, as well as the Cali and Medellin cocaine cartels in Colombia, and the $5 billion-a-year illegal trade in wildlife is well established.

Pablo Escobar, the Colombian drugs baron, had a private zoo at his El Napoles ranch, with giraffes, rhinos and elephants among 2,000 exotic animals
Craig Van Note, chief executive of Monitor, an international conservation consortium, said that every time a drugs camp had been infiltrated, birds, monkeys, snakes and other animals had been found as well. "With the drugs gangs so involved in wildlife trade now, it is becoming impossible to stop. There is so much corruption out there."

Pablo Escobar, the Colombian drugs baron, had a private zoo at his El Napoles ranch, with giraffes, rhinos and elephants among 2,000 exotic animals.

Heroin and cocaine are processed in the same remote parts of the world - such as the Amazon basin and South-East Asia's "Golden Triangle" - where many rare species are found.

It is the link between the legal shipment of wildlife and the drugs trade which is now worrying Customs authorities, and stretching the limited resources allocated for wildlife trade. US Fish and Wildlife Service agents complain they are under pressure to form their own "SWAT" team to enforce drugs laws.

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