Young ex-drug traffickers on living with a conviction

Young ex-drug traffickers on living with a conviction
High-stakes game — Three former drug smugglers discuss the reality of living with an importation conviction and the stigma that inevitably comes with it.

JMV felt his heart pounding in his chest as he walked past the Guernsey Border Force desk, trying to look like a normal ferry passenger. Once he’d passed he didn’t dare look back. He kept walking, and gradually the adrenaline was replaced by feelings of elation and relief, as he’d managed to sneak 250 grams of MDMA onto the second-largest Channel Island.

“Nothing compares to the thrill of getting past four miserable-looking customs officers with tens of thousands of pounds’ worth of class A drugs in your backpack,” the 23-year old former drug dealer says. “It’s fucking intense, but addictive.”

It’s clear that drug importation can be a lucrative game: Guernsey Border Force recently valued 250 grams of MDMA at £19,920 to £25,400, even though it tends to cost well under £1,500 just 120 miles away in the UK. But as JMV realised long before his decade-long prison sentence, it’s also a very high-stakes game with serious consequences when things go wrong.

These repercussions extend far beyond the immediate aftermath of the drugs bust and prison sentence, with challenges obtaining well-paid jobs in certain sectors, societal judgement, and life-long difficulties obtaining visas for countries such as the US and Australia, among other difficulties. For young smugglers like JMV, these barriers can follow them around for life. This is despite the fact that, according to criminologist Dr Mike Salinas-Edwards from Manchester Metropolitan University, “Research has long demonstrated that most offenders ‘age out’ of crime. So being caught for an offence in your early 20s is actually a very poor indicator of character and criminal inclinations in someone’s late 20s or 30s.”

JMV has served multiple short prison sentences for drugs, and notes the longer-term employment consequences. “I found cheap suppliers for most drugs before I even left school, and it meant I could sell mephedrone and weed for big profits, but this means I’ve never built up a legit career, like my mates.”

With dreams of running his own business and enjoying family life in one of Guernsey’s laid back coastal communities, JMV hopes that this prison sentence will be his last, and is working hard to change his fortunes. But with house prices on the island selling for an average of £510,000 and rent averaging out at £1,500 a month, it’s easy to see how young people in this rural marketplace can be tempted to try their hand at trafficking drugs to pay the bills.

Salinas-Edwards says the vast majority of those involved in drug trafficking live perfectly ordinary lives and simply integrate their illegal activity into their daily routines. Only a minority of those who supply illegal drugs are detected and subsequently punished for breaching these laws. 

However, those who are caught not only face criminal sanctioning, they are also highly stigmatised. “Although attitudes towards some drugs such as cannabis may be softening, the general public see supply or trafficking offences as pretty much the pinnacle of immoral behaviour, often up there with things like murder or child abuse,” he explains.

Salinas-Edwards observes that in practice, only a minority of drug supply cases tend to involve exploitation. “It doesn’t automatically mean you push drugs onto vulnerable people like kids,” he says. “But with headlines like ‘drug kingpins’ or references to ‘Breaking Bad’ and ‘Class A drugs’ it’s unlikely the public are going to have much of a nuanced view of drug dealing.”

While such headlines villanise smugglers, often, they are just young people looking to make ends meet. Facundo Ismo, age 23, moved abroad from his home city of Mar del Plata in Argentina to search for a better life in Europe, and he successfully found casual work as a labourer on a Madrid building site. But the cost of living in the capital was high, and he ended up trying to smuggle nine oz of cannabis resin into Britain in return for a free trip to London, where he hoped to find work and possibly remain there. 

Facundo swallowed 30 pellets – each containing just under ten grams of resin – in the hope of concealing the class B drug from customs’ sniffer dogs. Officials said they became suspicious when they learned he hadn’t booked accommodation, which meant he was detained until he agreed to an ultrasound scan for illicit substances. But while in jail, he discovered that he had most likely been sent through as ‘bait’, so a much larger drug shipment could pass through the ferry port undetected.

“I received a 30-month prison sentence, and then they escorted me onto an airplane back to South America. It’s been nearly eight months since I got home, and I still haven’t managed to find more than a few weeks of work at a time, possibly due to my trafficking antics raising a few trust issues,” Facundo says. “It’s hard, as there’s a high unemployment rate in my city and most jobs pay no more than $50 a week. There is no resettlement support here either, so the transition to freedom has been tough.”

Facundo still feels that his best hope of getting ahead is to get away. “I’m saving the money for a plane ticket back to Europe, as I’m half Italian. It’s frustrating, as this one mistake cost me everything and I’m back where I started, fighting to survive,” he explained. “Nobody spoke Spanish or Italian in prison, so I speak quite good English now and I’m hoping this will help me find a hospitality job somewhere in the Mediterranean.”

Like Facundo, mum-of-three Hannah was pushed towards drug trafficking after running into some financial difficulties. She lived in a Cornish seaside town of Penzance and worked as a low-paid carer on a zero-hours contract, but the salary wasn’t nearly enough to cover the bills and her growing crack and heroin addiction.

The 31-year-old mum was convicted of class A and B drug importation after Guernsey Border Force officials found 1.2 kilos of cocaine and four kilos of cannabis resin behind her car door panel in November 2019. It emerged that she had driven from Cornwall to Southampton, where she caught the ferry to Guernsey with a female friend. 

Hannah’s now 21 months into a 12 and a half year jail sentence in the island’s mixed-sex prison, Les Nicolles. “I haven’t seen the kids since my arrest. Money’s always been tight, so my ex planned to save up for them to come over last summer. But unfortunately, the pandemic meant no-one was allowed to visit from March 2020 to July 2021 without isolating in a Guernsey B&B for 14 days on arrival,” she says, “and let’s face it, that would’ve cost an absolute fortune.”

“It was hard when the girls started puberty and had to go to family members for advice, as they should’ve been able to come with me,” she says. “We talk on the phone, but it’s not the same – it’s indescribable how much I miss them and I desperately want to make it up to them. I constantly think about the moment I get out and can do the little things like cook for them again.”

Hannah is currently applying to retrain as a drug support workers, but she worries that people will hold her drug conviction against her when she leaves prison. She has applied to move to an English prison, even though she has heard there’s more violence and drugs in mainland jails. “At least then, I can start to rebuild my relationship with the kids. Though in the meantime, I’m just trying to stay busy with as many classes as possible.”

As Salinas-Edwards explains: “Young mums and dads face distinct challenges post-conviction, with family members often experiencing negative financial and emotional consequences. This can vastly impact on the convicted parent’s self-esteem and mental wellbeing, as they seek to redress this imbalance.”

He says that in a world that frequently ‘others’ people who supply drugs, it’s often challenging for those with trafficking convictions to resettle back into the community after a prison sentence. There are the difficulties of overcoming societal judgement and rebuilding relationships with loved ones who may not approve of their illicit activities, as well as the substantial hurdle of gaining secure employment to obtain an income.

The predominant view in popular political and media discourse is that it’s the people convicted of supplying drugs who need to change their behaviour. It’s often assumed that traffickers are immoral people who live at the margins of society, but JMV, Hannah and Facundo’s stories show this perception to be a gross generalisation. In reality, society needs to change how it views drug traffickers, so we can ensure fewer people are victimised by a system that inadvertently damages and excludes those convicted of a crime.

Follow Rebecca Tidy on Twitter.

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