On February 10, 2016 the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (‘ICE’) announced in a policy document that appears to coincide with ranking ICE officials testimony before the United States Senate Special Committee on Aging that it recently launched ‘Operation Cocoon‘ to help curtail the use of “elderly citizens” unknowingly acting as drug couriers, or drug mules as couriers are sometimes referred to as, from foreign countries to the United States or to other foreign countries. While not part of the policy document released, typical of the victims of such scams is J. Byron Martin a 77 year old retired minister from Maine, who thought he was helping a fellow soul by transporting what he believed to be books from Peru to London via Spain.
It turned out that the books in issue had drugs secreted away in them. Mr. Martin’s son, Andy Martin of Henderson, Nevada testified that his father was never arrested in his 70 plus years on this planet prior to this episode. Mr. Martin is now serving a seven year sentence of incarceration in Spain. Senator Susan Collins presided over the hearing and indicated that the ensnared seniors are duped into transporting the drugs, those with the requisite criminal intent secret the drugs away in “chocolates, picture frames, tea, markers, canned goods, shampoo bootles, soap and wooden hangers.” The hearings were an effort to get the word out about this very serious danger. Both the Senate Committee on Aging and ICE operate a toll free number to report suspected scams. That number for ICE is (866) DHS-2-ICE; (866) 347-2423. The phone number for the Senate Committee on aging is (855) 303-9470.
A total of at least 83 United States citizens were arrested as a result of such scenarios since 2013. A total of 145 drug runs or sorties were positively identified, with the average age of the couriers at about 59, with the oldest known courier 87 years old. One person was intercepted prior to unwittingly becoming a drug courier was 97 years old. At least 30 elderly Americans are incarcerated overseas due to such schemes. Law enforcement officials in various nations including, but not limited to Argentina, China, Spain and Hong Kong are working to help crack any criminal organizations that utilize such methods and have made 15 such arrests to date.
In total, Operation Cocoon took 272 kilograms of meth, 209 kilograms of cocaine, four kilograms of ecstasy and 11 kilograms of heroin off the streets. While those amounts may amount to a small fortune if translated into monetary value, they are but a small trickle in the flood of drugs awash in America. Many of these unwitting drug couriers are subject to foreign nations strict liability laws that do not take into account the individual’s knowledge or lack of knowledge of their drug cargo. In many instances, federal officials intercept the unwitting drug mules prior to leaving the United States and stop any such activity prior to leaving. The Senate Committee on Aging intends to conduct an education campaign at nursing homes and community centers to help get the word out.