• Cassie Sainsbury. (AAP) (FACEBOOK)Source: FACEBOOK
The war on drugs implies a zero-tolerance for trafficking but, writes Ruby Hamad, the arrest of low-level drug mules often seems more about propaganda than stopping the drug trade.
Ruby Hamad

19 May 2017 - 2:54 PM  UPDATED 19 May 2017 - 5:00 PM

It seems Australians can’t get enough of salacious stories of fellow Aussies copping the full brunt of harsh drug laws in non-Western countries.

And so, the recent arrest of Australian woman Cassandra Sainsbury at Bogota’s international airport in Colombia, where she was caught with 5.8 kliograms of cocaine in her luggage, has all the hallmarks of a media sensation.

Sainsbury alleges she was tricked into carrying the drugs by a local man from whom she bought more than a dozen cheap headphones. Despite her proclamations of innocence, this has not stopped much of the Australian media from dutifully casting her as a naïve innocent abroad who suddenly finds herself in a “dirty…overcrowded,” “terrifying”, South American “prison hell.

However, if article comments sections and social media are anything at all to go by, the public seems far less sympathetic to Cassie’s plight than many mainstream reporters. The flip side of the fascination with other Westerners, who squander their relative good fortune by somehow ending up in international prisons, is the concurrent investment in seeing Australian drug smugglers feel the full effects of the law in whatever country they were caught in.

...if article comments sections and social media are anything at all to go by, the public seems far less sympathetic to Cassie’s plight than many mainstream reporters. 

In the final days before the execution of Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan, the “ringleaders” of the Bali 9, conservative columnist Caroline Marcus summed up this unforgiving sentiment in claiming the duo, despite their remorse, deserved not sympathy but “a bullet.” The two situations are very different and unrelated. Cassie’s case is also yet to be heard. To-date, she maintains her innocence. But the only commonality here is the way in which media speculate about Australians caught with drugs in their possession in waters beyond Australia.

Cassandra Sainsbury's fiance says accused drug mule is innocent
The fiance of Cassandra Sainsbury says he has no doubts that the Adelaide woman is innocent of drug charges.

It’s interesting, if bemusing, to witness a country that boasts about its own cultural superiority based largely on its “civilised” and liberal laws, revel in the prospect of its citizens being subjected to draconian ones overseas. A far more important discussion to be had is one focused on how her arrest came to be.

According to Colombian police, they received a tip-off from the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), who were suspicious of the last-minute ticket to Bogota from Hong Kong, bought for Sainsbury by a third party.

It’s interesting, if bemusing, to witness a country that boasts about its own cultural superiority based largely on its “civilised” and liberal laws, revel in the prospect of its citizens being subjected to draconian ones overseas. 

In an interview with Australian media, Colonel Rodrigo Solo, head of Bogota airport’s anti-drug police force said that many mules were victims themselves. “Trafficking takes advantage of innocent people, younger people like Cassandra, also older people,” he said, acknowledging that it is extreme financial hardship that often drives people to gamble with their own lives for the lure of easy money.

Innocent or guilty, Sainsbury’s case is not for society to judge. However, the media interest in the case raises a very important question: will we win the global war on drugs by charging people with cocaine in their possession at airports? Cocaine is decriminalised for personal use in Colombia, although strict laws on trafficking remain. At what point do these agencies decide that catching the mule is more imperative than following them to the kingpins that actually packed their saddle?

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Similar questions were asked on behalf of two of the youngest of the Bali 9, Scott Rush and Michael Czugaj, who were only teenagers when the Australian Federal Police were alerted to their plans to smuggle heroin into Australia from Indonesia. Ironically, this tip-off came from one of the young men’s own parents, naively under the impression that the Australian Federal Police (AFP) would attempt to prevent the crime from occurring.

The AFP defended their decision not to intervene, but as in Sainsbury’s case, surely there are legitimate questions as to whether it would’ve been more worthwhile to see where the smuggled drugs ended up? That prisons across the world are filled with low-level drug offenders more than high-rolling kingpins, makes it difficult to see this as more than a performance of zero-tolerance drug policy. 

Like the war on terror, the war on drugs often seems more about appearances than substance. Forcing airline passengers to remove their shoes gives the illusion that terrorism is preventable but hardly exposes its roots. Likewise, apprehending drug mules and small- time street dealers gives the appearance of cleaning up the streets, but illicit drug use is on the rise across the globe – including in Australia – and this requires a different approach. One that is simultaneously compassionate towards low level offenders and users, and focused on the organisers of the international cartels.

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Adelaide woman Cassie Sainsbury has told of the chaos and threats she feels as she continues to be held in prison in Colombia on drug charges.

Harsh and mandatory sentencing may serve as a warning to other would-be mules, but their real purpose could be something else. As former Four Corners journalist Chris Masters put it, “Little fish in the drugs war, but big fish in the propaganda war, Myuran Sukamaran and Andrew Chan have had the harshest possible welcome to the real world of international crime.”

As long as desperate people exist, they will take desperate measures. Until the poverty that drives so many of them is mitigated, there remains an endless supply of would-be mules duped into thinking they will get away with it.

Like their animal namesakes, drug mules are beasts of burden; disposable, replaceable, and forgettable – by those who recruit them and by those who catch them. Chan and Sukumaran met their fate. Rush and Czugaj are living out theirs behind bars. And as Cassandra Sainsbury awaits her own, another mule has doubtlessly already taken her place.

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