Saturday, February 21, 2009

No carnival for British couple caught with cocaine

With sentences of 10-12 years for drug-smuggling in Venezuela, filling your suitcase with several kilos of cocaine and trying to board a plane to the UK is not only stupid it's insane.

So it was sad to hear that a young British couple with four children on a First Choice package holiday to Margarita Island were arrested at Santiago Marino airport with 24 kilos of cocaine hidden in their luggage.

According to reports in the Venezuelan media, holidaymakers Paul and Laura Makin from the Liverpool suburb of Birkenhead were boarding a charter flight to Gatwick on the morning of Monday, 16 February 2009, when three of the family's suitcases were checked by officers from the National Guard's Special Anti-Drugs Unit.

The officers broke open the suitcases and found 24 kilos of suspected cocaine hidden in secret compartments.

UK reports have put the street value of the seized cocaine at 1.2 million dollars.

The couple, both 31, were immediately arrested and charged with drug-trafficking. They have been remanded to San Antonio prison on the island - Paul in an open dormitory and Laura in a private cell.

Their two-year-old twins, and a seven-year-old boy and an eight-year-old girl from Laura Makin's previous relationship were taken to the Cuidado Ligia de Tovar children's home in Valle del Espiritu Santo.

Now, in a bizarre twist, Paul Makin has told British reporters that he thought he would be smuggling diamonds, not cocaine, and he takes full responsibility for what happened.

"When the officers sliced the cases open and peeled back the grey gaffer tape and I saw a white substance I was devastated," he told a reporter.

"As soon as I saw it I knew it was likely to be cocaine.

"I kept asking, 'what's the problem?' One of them said, 'It's cocaina.' "It was like someone had plunged a knife in my heart."

Makin is a bus driver who served as a soldier with the Chesire Regiment until 2002. He is wanted in the UK by British police after an arrest warrant was issued for him on 9 February for failing to turn up at Liverpool Crown Court to answer charges of affray and possessing a machete.

The couple's lawyer John Wheate has said that family members flew out to Venezuela to see the children and they have been now been flown home.

This is a bad time to be locked up in Venezuela. The annual carnival celebrations are underway all over the country and will drag on for at least a week. Margarita tourist officials have said they expect tens of thousands of local holidaymakers to arrive and the authorities will be tied up with policing the beaches and music events.

The Makins will probably have to wait at least a month for their case to be reviewed as no paperwork will be undertaken until the island returns to normal.

And it's no holiday being locked up in Venezuela. Margarita may be a tropical paradise but the Makins cannot expect resort conditions in San Antonio.

Since I wrote this report, in July 2009 Paul Makin admitted to the smuggling charges and received an eight year sentence.

But Laura Makin, who maintains her innocence will have to wait up to a year before she is tried.

In the meantime, she remains in San Antonio prison and is reportedly terrified of her fellow inmates.

She told a News of the World reporter in July 2009 that "one girl threatened to stab me - over a carton of juice SHE stole from ME."

She also claimed that gangs in the prison had tried to force her to join a hunger strike, threatening to beat her or shave her head if she refused.

"... if you don't do as you're told, if you don't follow the bunch, if you don't do what they expect of you, there's punishment," she said.

If convicted at her trial Laura could face up to 10 years in prison.

It's not a pretty picture living inside a Venezuelan prison. They are dangerous, overcrowded places where drugs and guns are rife. You need money to pay for protection and get a good cell away from the overcrowded pavilions where most of the violence takes place. Everything you need has to be bought or bartered for and decent food is extortionately priced.

In March 2001, a 26-year-old British woman called Sarah Langton from Northampton who was doing a five-year stretch for cocaine smuggling died in a women's prison in Los Teques, near Caracas, after slipping into a diabetic coma.

Irene Campbell, a 53-year-old Scottish social worker with eight grandchildren was sentenced to six years and nine months in 2000 when eight kilos of cocaine were found in her suitcase at Margarita's Santiago Marino airport.

Like the Makin's she was held in San Antonio prison. Her daughter who visited her in jail said she had lost five kilos and had developed a heart condition from the constant stress of being incarcerated there.

The most famous recent case was the two young guys from Leicester, James Miles and Paul Loseby, who served four years in the notorious Yare prison after being caught at Simon Bolivar International Airport in Maiquetia with waistcoats filled with 10 kilos of cocaine.

The boys insisted they were innocent and had been made to wear the waistcoats at gunpoint. The judge didn't believe them and they were sentenced to four years, later increased to eight.

Miles was 18 at the time of his arrest and was on his first trip abroad. After arriving back in England he told an interviewer of the horrors of prison life: "The conditions were like hell. At first we were scared because everyone had knives. So we had to get knives as well."

Eventually, after being let out on parole, they managed to skip the country and fly home.

Loseby, who contracted Tuberculosis in jail, has suffered the effects since.

In 2007, out of some 1,500 foreigners in Venezuelan prisons 23 were British, the majority of them banged up for drug-smuggling.

According to a report in Britain's Sunday Mirror in 2002, Colombian drug gangs in the UK are increasingly targeting couples to act as couriers. Two reporters, who went undercover, contacted a man who said he was looking for people to courier drugs from South America to the UK.

He said they would be booked into a resort in Margarita for ten days or a fortnight and at the end of their stay the suitcases containing the cocaine would be delivered to them. All they had to do was bring them back.

They were also told that two or three couples would be coming back on the same plane as them, presumably, to increase the chances of getting the drugs through.

The couple were told they would earn 7,000 pounds each.

It must seem like easy money when you're in an English pub being told by some blinged up gangster how easy it is to get through customs, how many people get away it and how much money you're going to make. And there's also the appeal of an all expenses paid two-week holiday of sun and fun in a foreign resort.

But for those who get caught the results are life changing.

It might sound trite, but if there's a moral to this story it's: "Just say no."

A gripping new book by two British lads who spent four years in Venezuela's violent Yare prison has just been published: "Banged Up Abroad: Hellhole"

Click here to read Donald Macneil's gripping account of his time in San Antonio jail in Margarita: "Journey to Hell: Inside the World's Most Violent Prison System

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