Blind mules

By Lina Kolesnikova, Security Consultant

Last January in her new film Trafficked: Underworlds with Mariana van Zeller (National Geographic UK) the investigative journalist Mariana van Zeller attracted public attention to how international criminal syndicates are targeting elderly people and turning them into becoming drug mules.

The film tells the story of Rodney Baldus, a 70-year-old American, who is serving his 17-year sentence in Mozambique for drugs trafficking. Initially approached by an online phishing message that promised a $10.5 million inheritance from a distant Italian relative, Baldus was sceptical and reluctant to engage in any activities. However, the money presented an opportunity being out of his then financial distress, so when he was offered a free air-ticket to Mozambique and a prepaid hotel accommodation there to finalize the paperwork, he went for it. The anonymous benefactor, who told him he had this mysterious inheritance, said he must travel first to Maputo (capital of Mozambique), and then to South Africa where he would take a flight to Italy.

At the hotel in Maputo, a man paid him a visit and gave him a suitcase to carry to Italy. Baldus was also given a box of biscuits in which more than 4 kg of heroin was hidden. Later he said he did not suspect he was duped for carrying drugs. It seems he was set up as a blind mule to smuggle heroin into Italy via the infamous Southern Route which starts in Afghanistan, wends its way through Africa and ends in different European destinations.

Rodney Baldus was arrested in Mozambique and imprisoned there. His daughter tries to campaign to attract attention for his defence and other elderly people who were used by mafia as blind mules.

Who are (Blind) Mules?
Initially, the term blind mule refers to an individual who unknowingly engages in smuggling drugs across the border. However, this term started being used for cases of smuggling people, arms, money, CBRNe, counterfeit goods, antiques and artworks etc.

The term blind mule is opposed to mule – an individual who knows about his/her mission and possible consequences. However, mules are not necessarily involved in smuggling by their own rational choice. They could be forced into doing it by a threat (or blackmail), by poor economic conditions (for example, poverty often resulting in depression), by human compassion (sometimes involved in case of people smuggling), by setting up to misunderstand or misinterpret the real situation (making them to believe in friendship, love, or solidarity) etc.

With a growing number of smuggling cases employing sea-, land- and air transport we can constate that cargo companies, not only individuals, could also be used as blind mules by criminal groups. Meanwhile, this article limits itself to looking at individuals set up, engaged and used by organised criminal groups in their interests as blind mules.

Modus operandi
Blind mules could be chosen on the spot (randomly), or they could be selected and targeted by criminals prior to contact and engagement.

One of the most frequent cases is when the vehicle (air, land and maritime) of unaware person or company is chosen as means of smuggling due to its itinerary. The to-be-smuggled objects are hidden at the bottom of vehicles or in other parts where access is not easy. That works for smaller objects that could be packages of drugs, or arms. In the case of people smuggling, “fellow travellers” could hide in a car or in a truck.

Secondly, the smuggling items could be placed into personal luggage either by direct request or secretly from those who will carry them. That could be possible before travelling (blind mule could be asked about a favour of taking the “object” or the object could be placed without permission) but also during the travelling by plane, train (for example, before passing customs control or ad-hoc, in case of previously unexpected but probably police check), or a cross-border bus.

Another way of using a blind mule could be asking for “an assistance” of unaware person at the airport/railway station. Blind mule could be asked to help with carrying some items (bottle of water or bottle with baby formula or anything else looking innocent), which could hide smuggling objects during the customs check or in case of police check.

Blind mule scam scenario is becoming a real problem now as it is very difficult to identify, control and stop it. The contact and engagement scenarios vary. Among the more frequent scenarios initiating the mule (involving advance “preparation” and setting up the scene), are fishing scam, fake job ads and new contacts in dating apps. A target is contacted online by a scammer who builds trust, presents a convincing story, and then creates a tempting bait (more often this is love, money or some career opportunities). Next, they announce some unforeseen problem that puts the desired outcome in jeopardy. Being guided by a requestor, the target develops the feeling of anxiousness, and is willing to make an extra step to still get to the expected outcome. The target is then sent to a third, potentially unexpected location, and asked to transport luggage as a favour.

Blind mule scams often affect the elderly and women because they are less likely to arouse suspicion at border crossings, checkpoints and traffic stops. It is also easier to manipulate elder people as they might be less aware of risks associated with online contacts.

Let us look structurally at smuggling and blind mules to see if we can identify certain countermeasures.
Economy of smuggling

When smuggling something or someone, there are several economical aspects to consider:

  • Revenue side
    o Usually shared between
  • Owner of the “object” to smuggle, the seller.
  • The one who organises the logistics, i.e., the smuggler. o On the costs side, there are
  • The one who executes the smuggling actions, i.e., the mule.
  • Transportation costs, i.e., vehicle and associated costs (insurance if applicable, fuel, etc.), or travel tickets and associated hotel and daily expenses for a mule, etc.
  • Eventually, bribes or other “close your eyes” facilitating expenses.

In this scenario, the cost of a mule can be significant, as a smuggling operation would rarely involve one single person. The mule acting knowingly, would want to be paid for the work, but also for the risk. Moreover, the mule might also demand some sort of “professional insurance”, for those who get caught as well as their families. Finally, running a knowing mule always comes with a risk that, in some circumstances, might give authorities information on the operation, or decide to play their own game; the latter is both a risk and, potentially, a higher cost for the smuggler.
The runners of the smuggling scheme constantly look at evaluating and optimising the costs (and risks).

Blind mules reduce costs, for example, by avoiding the costs of “insurance” and blind mules cannot reveal much useful information to the authorities if caught, because they have none. Hence, blind mules for smuggling might be cheaper and less risky than paying a regular knowledgeable mule. Of course, much depends also on the scale, for example, how much of the “product” needs to be smuggled.

Risk management
Apart from revenue and costs, smugglers would consider different risk factors. For example, the risk of a mule being apprehended by the police. Access to reliable mules might be wide but still limited, as one more person knowing of the scheme would augment the risk to the secrecy of the whole scheme and to a potential network detection in case of an individual mule being caught.

This is quite different with the blind mule, who cannot say anything beyond typically very limited and largely faked information about the individual the blind mule was in contact with. Secondly, with the large population of aged tourists travelling or willing to travel, the number and the choice of blind mules might be significant.

By dividing the delivery lot into multiple smaller packages carried by blind mules (in particular, in case of drugs and smaller objects smuggling), smugglers may manage the risk of the whole shipment by reducing the cost of a single failure. That comes together with reducing the risk of being detected, as the blind mule would simply know nothing of the actual nature of the operation, or its real scale.

What can be done about it?
When we talk about smuggling by blind mule we always talk about “something”, an object to be smuggled. This something can be passed in three ways: in a vehicle, in hold luggage and hand luggage.

For the luggage (for example, with air travel), there is nothing special to do. All the usual controls that are done on any luggage without specific attention to the owner – scanning, sniffing, etc. This can be covered by the regular industrial control systems, like those controlling luggage in the distribution systems at airports.

For the hand luggage, this is something else. Apart from the general equipment and technics aiming at scanning, sniffing, etc., the phenomenon of blind mules can also be addressed by pushing on its strong-weak link – the blind mule himself/herself.

As the mule is “blind” and is innocently clueless about the true origin and nature of the smuggling operation, the mule would have fewer reasons to hide the information. The blind mule operation has several components which need to be identified:

  • Actual travel details. From where to where the flights are and when the flights are taken. The blind mule operation is not usually a regular tourist trip (even though it might become so when stakes are higher, and smugglers decide to spend more on the mule). It means that the mule could inform on their activities during the trip, such as meeting some previously un-met people. This, often, involves a journey via “another” destination for no obvious economic or travel time benefit. The blind mule, if questioned, could be open about this happening, and it result in their awakening to the reality of their situation.
  • Secondly, the security guards, during routine questioning aim at identifying potential twists in travel and “things” that do not belong to the travelling passenger.

So, in principle, we can find generally available measures to uncover the possibility of someone being used as a blind mule. The tough task, however, remains identifying who needs further questioning. In a mass travel industry, slowing down the security checkout is costly for airport operations.

In fact, similar services and solutions aiming at detecting a potentially illicit operation exist. If you think of telecom or financial services, such detection solutions are well developed, as well as the methods of manual and automated “creation” and “testing” of the detection rules. In modern societies full of surveillance and information collecting of all kinds about people, by multiple services and providers, it is a matter of political will and hopefully, privacy-aware information gathering and “connecting the dots” methods, coupled with enriching data from existing data operators. Would such techniques be applied, it is of no doubt that over time, detection of “blind mule” operations might improve, at least enough to deter mass operations. Would the privacy be still there? Depending on how detection services are set, it is possible that the privacy situation would not really change for the worse.

In the meantime, more attention should be paid to the awareness campaign in media, for example, national TV channels with prime-time social advertising, for as long as we talk about elderly people who might be watching TV more often comparing to younger people), poster and announcements at airports, as well as other methods and channels. The meaning of a campaign could be preventing (“don’t take anything from anyone”) as well as detective, as enticing travellers to hint security guards on something they might be carrying while setting legislative measures to protect such travellers for cases, when ultimately, such hinting would result in an actual detection of something illicit.