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Caring for ‘drug mules’ who perish on the job

Orlando Tobon has earned the title of  “Don Orlando” in the Colombian community of Jackson Heights, Queens, because of his work over the last 15 years to help repatriate the bodies of “drug mules” who die as a result of drug trafficking. NBC News' Carmen Sesin reports.
Orlando Tobon.
Orlando Tobon.Dominick Conde / HBO Films - Fine Line Features
/ Source: NBC News

An 82-year-old woman from Bogota who struggled economically to care for her mentally retarded son was convinced by narco-traffickers that one trip to New York as a “drug mule” would supply her with enough money for her son’s future.

But her dream ended when a pellet full of narcotics ruptured in her stomach as she got into a cab at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York. She died before the cab could reach a hospital.  

In another episode, a mother and her 16-year-old son were both serving as drug mules when they arrived in New York. The trip took a tragic turn when a pellet burst in the boy’s stomach on the way to their destination, a nearby hotel in Queens. His mother left the young man to die in the hotel room.

These are the people — criminals or innocent dupes or both — who have been cared for by Orlando Tobon, or “Don Orlando” as he is known in the Colombian community of Jackson Heights, Queens.

For more than 15 years, he has been collecting the unclaimed bodies of these unwanted Colombians and raising money for their burial.

Good Samaritan
“There are so many cases, and they are all different,” said Tobon, 57, from his one-room travel agency, which also acts as a tax-preparation service and helps people find employment.

Tobon migrated from a small town in Colombia more than 30 years ago. He said he was greatly influenced by his mother, who was always helping people in need. Tobon recalled one Christmas when his mother took a toy car she had given him as a gift and gave it to another boy because “she felt he needed it more.”

Tragically, she died in the 1990 Avianca plane crash on Long Island as she returned from a trip to Colombia to deliver clothes she had collected for the poor.

Tobon began helping the families of drug mules by happenstance when he was helping a neighbor raise money to repatriate her sister's body after she died in a car accident.

While they were at the morgue, an employee pointed out the bodies of six Colombians that had not been claimed. She explained they were drug mules or “swallowers,” as they are often called, who died bringing drugs into the United States. 

“That left quite an impression on me, and the money that was left over from the girl in the accident was used to bury one of the bodies in the morgue,” Tobon said.

His new cause was not always easy. “The police was constantly following me and questioning me because they thought I was part of the mafia,” Tobon said.

He recalled one occasion when the police knocked down his door at 4 a.m. and searched his apartment.

After time, the police realized he was not involved with the narco-traffickers, and one of the police officers who used to constantly follow him has wound up donating money to his cause. Now he even receives calls from the police when a body is discovered. 

According to an official at the U.S. Bureau of Customs and Border Protection, “the early 1980s is when JFK Airport inspectors first began to encounter and interdict internals [swallowers] and inserters as a method of smuggling drugs.”

During fiscal year 2003 there were 106 seizures of heroin at JFK Airport alone, equaling 237 pounds, and 32 seizures of cocaine equaling 63 pounds.

Risks taken by desperate people
Drug mules usually carry about two pounds of narcotics in 18 to 25 pellets.  A pellet consists of a condom or latex glove stuffed with the drugs.

In order to assist in the difficult process of swallowing the illicit cargo, drug mules are usually given substances such as “Chloraseptic to loosen up and numb the throat,” said one DEA official.

Once drug swallowers reach their destination they are met by the narco-traffickers. They go to a hotel, where they are to remain until they pass all the drugs. Laxatives are usually taken to assist in the painful process of extracting the drugs.

If a condom is weak, it can burst inside the drug mule’s stomach causing the person to die of a drug overdose. In addition, “the acid from the stomach can break the rubber,” Tobon said, which also leads to an agonizing death.

And the traffickers are ruthless. Tobon recalled the case of one woman who died in her hotel. "The mafia opened her stomach with a knife and withdrew the drugs," he said. "Then they placed her body inside a plastic bag and set it on fire.”  

Although Tobon does not keep track of how many people he has helped, he calculated that it is 300 to 400 people. During his busiest time, Tobon had three to four cases per week to deal with. 

He always tries to contact the family in Colombia, which can be difficult since the victims usually carry false documents. If he cannot get in touch with kin in Colombia, the body is buried here. “Sometimes I am the only one at the funeral, or sometimes it is just two of us,” said Tobon.

When it comes to raising money, Tobon said that “people in the community respond quickly.” He usually asks for donations on RCN radio, a Colombian radio station that broadcasts in Queens through a local carrier.

“Most of the people who bring drugs are good people," he said. "They have to be good people.… They have to be educated, decent looking people so they don’t look suspicious.”

“Maria, Full of Grace”
Tobon's story will soon get wider notice as he was involved in a movie that depicts the life of a drug swallower.

He plays himself in the film “Maria, Full of Grace,” the story of a 17-year-old girl who lives in a small town in Colombia and comes into the United States as a drug mule.

She works in a rose plantation in Colombia, and feeling “strapped for cash … she agrees to swallow half a kilo of cocaine,”  film director Joshua Marston said.

After spending time with Tobon in his office and seeing the work he does, Marston said he was “inspired to rewrite the script,” in order to incorporate Tobon into the film.

Tobon was impressed with the final product, describing it as an extraordinary film. "The story is very real…. It’s almost identical to one of the cases I had to deal with once.”

The movie, which will premiere in New York and Los Angeles on July 16, has won a number of awards, including the Dramatic Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival, best actress award in the Berlin Film Festival, and six awards at the Cartagena Film Festival. 

Yet some people criticize Tobon for concentrating his charitable efforts on the deceased. He remains unswayed.

“People who die bringing drugs in their stomach are human beings. They are people who have been abused of their economic situation by the mafia," Tobon said. "They have committed a grave mistake by bringing drugs, and the mistake is so grave that it cost them their life.  If they paid for their mistake with their life, then why continue punishing them?"