Indonesian Women Preyed on by Drug Traffickers

By Sarah Beller 12/03/12

Pressured by love and money, female drug mules in Indonesia are becoming more common, despite the threat of the death penalty.

The kind of pellets that drug mules often have
to swallow.
Photo via

As the Jakarta Globe reports, an increasing number of Indonesian women—as elsewhere in the world—are lured into the dangerous role of drug mule by men. Indonesia is seen by international drug cartels as a profitable new market, with an illicit drug trade now worth over $4 billion a year and between 3.8 million and 4.2 million drug users, according to the country's National Narcotics Agency (BNN). So it's no wonder that smugglers are using all means, including desperate women, to import drugs. These women, often widows with children to feed, are frequently wooed by foreign men, who then take them to their own countries. The women are then sent back to visit Indonesia, and are either forced or tricked into carrying drugs. Several recent arrests of widows are worrying Indonesian authorities, NGOs and activists. 

BNN spokesperson Sr. Comr. Sumirat Dwiyanto says that these practices are becoming more common, adding that female drug mules are usually in their 30s and 40s and often the sole earner for their family: “They do it for financial reasons. There are those who can get Rp 5 million ($521) to Rp 10 million for each delivery.” Women’s rights activist Oldri Shearli Mukuan says that many of the women also face pressure from their new foreign boyfriends; they often don't know what they do when they meet them, and once they find out, it's too late. Oldri cites an example of one woman who thought her new boyfriend was in the "carpeting business." In Indonesia, drug trafficking is punishable with death by firing squad. Yet an even greater danger may be the rupturing of one of the pellets in a mule's stomach: smuggling methods include hiding drugs in luggage or clothes, concealing them on the body, or using the body itself as a container. "Body packing" involves drugs like cocaine and heroin being placed in condoms or other latex wrappings, then swallowed. A mule typically swallows up to 125 pellets, containing up to 1.25 Kg of drugs. Rupturing is sometimes caused by stomach acids, and death can rapidly follow. Mules are sometimes given tabets to reduce stomach acid, and often also take medication to inhibit bowel movements. They're later given laxatives and the pellets pass through their digestive systems.

So what can be done? Oldri says, “It is important to provide comprehensive information [on the trend]. These young women only receive limited information [about drug gangs] at school or from their surrounding communities. This is where the media plays a role in providing deeper information.” But Neng Dara Affiah, a commissioner at the National Commission on Violence Against Women (Komnas Perempuan), says the real solution is for women to be given freedom to work; in some areas of Indonesia, tradition dictates that women stay at home. So when, in the case of widows and divorcees, for example, they find themselves the sole breadwinners for their families, they lack the skills to get a legitimate job. 

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Sarah Beller is a writer and the Executive Director at Filter. She has written about drug policy with a focus on harm reduction for Substance.comThe Fix and Salon. She has worked as a social worker with formerly incarcerated people in New York for a number of years. Her writing has also appeared in McSweeney’sThe HairpinThe ToastReductressThe Rumpus and other publications. You can find Sarah on Linkedin and Twitter.