Peruvian drug traffickers prey on young Europeans

The profile is often the same: European, often young and female, and facing hard economic choices. A perfect mark for Peruvian cocaine traffickers seeking couriers.

Peruvian authorities say this appears to be the case with two women, one British and one Irish, arrested 15 days ago at Lima airport with 11 kilos (24 pounds) of cocaine and en route to Spain.

They were indicted Tuesday night, and face up to 18 years in prison if convicted.

Often the couriers are Spaniards, perhaps because the economic situation there is so dire -- youth unemployment more than 50 percent -- and the lure of fast, easy drug money is hard to resist.

"Because of their needs, many unemployed women are easily taken in by drug trafficking rings," said Johnny Bravo, head of the anti-drug unit known as Dirandro at Lima airport.

Colonel Tito Perez, overall director of Dirandro, said drug gangs tend to prefer attractive young women, although this is not always the case.

"There have also been cases involving elderly people," he said.

In Spain, traffickers offer people between 5,000 and 7,000 euros to bring drugs to that country, according to the Peruvian police.

In Peru they are known as "mulas" or mules. They come as tourists, and traffickers pay for their lodgings and return tickets so as to have them under their control, said a police source who requested anonymity.

At least 248 foreigners, 62 of them Spaniards, were arrested last year at Lima airport trying to smuggle drugs to the US, Europe or Asia, the Dirandro agency says.

Last year marked the first time that Spanish mules outnumbered Peruvian ones.

"Europeans are sold the idea that coming to South America and trafficking in drugs is very easy, that here security is not so tight," said Milton Rojas, who works for a drug prevention and awareness center called Cedro.

Civic organizations try to help the women but the jails are a problem -- they are overcrowded and foreigners make things worse, he said.

"Once they are in jail they suffer a lot because they do not speak the language, they do not have psychological support and they have to live alongside all kinds of criminals," said Rojas.

Early this year the Peruvian police broke up a gang with drug couriers of British origin and led by Philip Austin Collins, nephew of the singer Phil Collins.

The younger Collins was arrested in Lima and has been in prison since May.

Other Britons linked to him were arrested later. So the recent arrest of the two young Irish and British women raised suspicions that they too might be linked to the same network.

But there is no evidence of this, said Perez, the director of Dirandro.

These women told British media that while on the Spanish holiday island of Ibiza in the Mediterranean that were threatened with death by traffickers if they did get involved in the drug trade and thus came to Peru.

Peru and Colombia are among the world's largest producers of cocaine and its raw material, coca leaf.

The main destination for Peruvian cocaine is the United States, where a kilo of it sells for more than $30,000. In Europe this goes up to $45,000 and in Asia it is a whopping $110,000, according to Dirandro.