Colombian traffickers stitched bags of liquid heroin into puppies
Friday, February 3, 2006
BOGOTA, Colombia -- Meet Heroina, the latest -- and surely cuddliest -- crusader in the U.S.-backed war on drugs.
The purebred Rottweiler was one of six black-and-beige puppies found in a raid on a clandestine veterinary clinic in Colombia, each with about a pound of heroin implanted in their bellies.
Investigators believe a Colombian-based heroin trafficking ring used the dogs, as well as human couriers who swallowed the drugs, to conceal millions of dollars of heroin on commercial flights into New York for distribution on the U.S. East Coast.
Posing as trainers
The canines, with bags of liquid heroin surgically sewn in their abdomens, were shipped to drug traffickers posing as dog trainers wanting Labrador and Rottweiler purebreds for dog shows, Colombia's national police said.
Details of Heroina's saga were revealed this week, more than a year after the January 2005 raid, when Drug Enforcement Administration agents in New York announced that her former handlers were among 22 people nabbed in Colombia.
Ten of the suspects are already subject to U.S. extradition requests, DEA spokeswoman Erin Mulvey said Thursday.
Ten other members of the drug ring were arrested last year in New York, Florida and North Carolina, and more than 52 pounds of heroin were seized in the two-year investigation, the DEA and Colombian authorities said.
It was unclear how many dogs might have been used in the smuggling scheme, said John P. Gilbride, who runs the DEA's New York office. "I think it's outrageous and heinous that they'd use small, innocent puppies in this way," he said.
Heroina was the only female among the three pups who survived after the drugs were removed by veterinarians in Colombia. Three others died of infections following the surgery.
After a lengthy recovery, the pooch was adopted by Colombia's Judicial Police in Medellin and given the name Heroina, a play on the Spanish words for both the narcotic and a heroic female.
Today, she's being trained to be part of a small army of Colombian dogs that sniff out drugs, and her two surviving companions are enjoying a dog's life as police officers' pets, said Gabriel Jaime Gutierrez, a police spokesman in Medellin.
Customs agents at Colombian airports now use body-scanning devices to spot drugs concealed in capsules and plastic condoms and swallowed by human travelers. But pets shipped as cargo often bypass these devices.
A far bigger concern for anti-drug forces is that the same traffickers behind the puppy ring may also have found a way of concealing drugs from even the most sophisticated drug detection technology.
As part of the investigation, officials tailed a woman they knew was transporting heroin for the ring. Upon interrogation by DEA officials in Miami, she became nervous and vomited up several drug-containing capsules, but only after she had slipped through body scans in both countries.
Police in Bogota said the drug smugglers covered the capsules with a substance that made them invisible.
The case not only shows how far traffickers will go to conceal drug shipments -- it also suggests the prominent role played by Colombia, the world's top cocaine supplier, in the trade of heroin.
According to the latest statistics available, Colombian and DEA agents seized more than 1,650 pounds of heroin in 2004, said Gen. Jorge Alirio Baron, Colombia's anti-narcotics police chief.
That's a pittance compared to the record 186 tons of cocaine Colombia seized last year, but owing to its almost 100 percent purity, heroin can be far more lucrative for smugglers.
"DEA officials in Boston told us that the street value of a kilogram [2.2 pounds] of heroin is $250,000 when the same amount of cocaine doesn't even fetch a tenth of that," Baron said.
The cultivation in Colombia of opium poppies, the base ingredient of heroin, has fallen dramatically to about 3,700 acres under President Alvaro Uribe's tenure, and authorities aim to eliminate the remaining crop this year, Baron said.
But because valuable amounts can be transported in very small quantities, heroin trafficking can be harder to detect.
"We're talking about very small amounts -- a half-kilo bust is a big deal," said Baron.