Unwitting Drug Smugglers

This is a story about a physicist who got taken in by an imaginary Internet girlfriend and ended up being arrested in Argentina for drug smuggling. Readers of this blog will see it coming, of course, but it’s a still a good read.

I don’t know whether the professor knew what he was doing—it’s pretty clear that the reporter believes he’s guilty. What’s more interesting to me is that there is a drug smuggling industry that relies on recruiting mules off the Internet by pretending to be romantically inclined pretty women. Could that possibly be a useful enough recruiting strategy?

EDITED TO ADD (4/12): Here’s a similar story from New Zealand, with the sexes swapped.

Posted on March 28, 2013 at 8:36 AM31 Comments


paul March 28, 2013 9:01 AM

In an infinite universe…

I would guess that, like the nigerian scams that announce themselves as such, it’s a pretty good way of weeding out people who might be sensible enough not to participate, or even to blow the whistle. And with bots (or low-paid underlings) doing most of the initial work, it’s not going to cost much compared to your expected profits.

But the best part of it (apparent from this article) is that it isolates the mule from the rest of the gang so there’s almost no chance of getting caught. Unless you’re the mule.

acb March 28, 2013 9:21 AM

I imagine that there’s a Dunning-Kruger effect involved as well; the professor, because of his exalted status cannot believe that there might be anything fishy with the idea that an international supermodel might seek him out as an ideal mate, or that his expertise in physics might not translate to street smarts, and gets taken in where one from a more modest background might see the warning signs from a mile off.

nycman March 28, 2013 9:23 AM

Sacrificial lamb strategy? From Wikipedia: “In husbandry-When escorting cattle across a river suspected of having piranhas, farmers will sometimes sacrifice a sick or injured cow downstream before letting the herd enter the water.” Use the mule to identify police agents and observe their response. Fine tune your smuggling operation by bribing said agents, and using the distraction to move your larger load through. Also gives the cops something to show.

Winter March 28, 2013 10:33 AM

This story is a perfect example of the problems with Security Awareness programs in the previous blog post.

How many times would the “victim” have seen and heard the warning that you should never take a bag into an airplane you did not pack yourself?

100 times? 1000 times? More?

Petréa Mitchell March 28, 2013 10:38 AM

I’d say it sounds about as likely as there being a substantial industry making money off of people who believe that African dictators need their help hiding ill-gotten gains. I guess it could work if you have a sufficiently small number of criminals using the strategy compared to the population of potential dupes.

jake March 28, 2013 11:26 AM

as a former physics phd student, i am reminded that “suckers” abound in the sciences. many people skilled in the sciences are correspondingly awful with social interactions, making them ripe targets.

one chinese guy in my grad class was robbed in broad daylight twice on different occasions within a year of each other. clueless science folk are pretty easy to spot IRL.

Chris S March 28, 2013 11:33 AM

@Winter — “How many times would the “victim” have seen and heard the warning that you should never take a bag into an airplane you did not pack yourself?”

Strictly speaking, he did pack the bag himself. If someone is going to be perfectly literal about that warning, then they might think it’s ok. Most people — not so much.

But given that this is someone who already was perfectly literal enough to believe that a young attractive model is attracted to his older physicist self, and he flew to South America on the strength of this? If someone is manipulating him, it’s reasonable to expect continued use of perfectly literal interpretations.

Rob March 28, 2013 12:20 PM

After reading the whole article, I’d say his email/text messages to his “girlfriend” (about the value of the cocaine and how to evade cops while delivering the suitcase) seem to belie his professed naiveté.

Clive Robinson March 28, 2013 12:49 PM

OK the Doc sounds more like the hapless Prof type as seen in many movie stereotypes.

But, that does not mean it’s true…

Now if you got home from a business trip or family holiday and found a block of C4 explosive in your bag… What would you think?

Well it turns out at one point a not so bright TSA type thought it would be a good idea to hide real blocks of explosive in innocent travelers bags to test security…

It might sound slightly odd, but almost the first thiing I used to do back when I had to fly a lot was on getting my bag off of the baggage claim conveyor was to “unpack it” on the nearest bit of clear floor or seating space and check it.

I was once asked by a “roving security guard” what I was doing and I told him “checking that no damage or theft had happened airside”, he gave me an odd look but when I went on to tell him that I’d had my bag slashed and stuff stolen befor, and claiming from the airline was a nightmare as they basicaly say you are making a false claim if you leave the terminal befor claiming, he just gave me a knowing nod and went on his way.

Bobby March 28, 2013 12:52 PM

some relevant lessons on Trust:enabling the naivete criminals need to thrive. Do you think the criminals chose him because of his age and stature? I mean, unless you watched Breaking Bad, who would suspect a man of chalk to be ferrying cocaine?

dbh March 28, 2013 1:27 PM

Knowing only what was in the article, I assumed he was guilty, and the line about being tricked by his lover (whom he had never met) was the elaborate cover story. It is different than the Nigerian scam in that this smuggling approach requires more work on the ground by the conspirators, and they have to produce valuable materials, the drugs, in order for it to succeed. They would have to worry about the “mark” making off with the goods and leaving them out the cost. It is an odd approach to the drug business, but it is probably very safe for the scammers. All they risk is losing the value of the drugs. If the drugs are plentiful in the source country, but methods for transporting them are scarce, then the risk might be worth it. And I don’t believe the cover story. He sounds like a drug smuggler who knew what he was doing, tried to create a paper trail that, he hoped, would protect him if he got caught. Did not work out that way.

Guy Bailey March 28, 2013 2:09 PM

If drug cartels can do this with cocaine, what’s stopping terrorist organizations from doing this with bombs?

It’s a problem that doesn’t have a good solution. Identify the gullible/narcissistic, then force them into treatment or watch them closely? Prevent people from impersonating beautiful women?

I suspect the saddest part of this story is that there are probably 1000 more stories like his, except that they weren’t caught.

Petréa Mitchell March 28, 2013 5:11 PM

Which is why security agencies that can find their arse with both hands don’t try and profile passengers.

while others introduce programs that allow ‘trusted passengers’ ie those with a platinum credit card and a criminal check – to skip security

John Hardin March 28, 2013 5:22 PM

Now if you got home from a business trip or family holiday and found a block of C4 explosive in your bag… What would you think?

“Christmas came early this year!”

Darrel March 28, 2013 6:01 PM

The art of using the opposite gender to get someone to do what you want them to has been used successfully since the dawn of time. From Adam and Eve to the modern day Honey Traps used by the Russians, women have been convincing men to make stupid mistake again and again. Something tells me that is not going to stop and time soon.

Derp March 28, 2013 9:07 PM

This guy seems too much of a gullible idiot to purposely traffic blow. For one, nobody in their right mind checks 2 bags when smuggling, let alone an empty bag. When it’s opened for inspection the first thing they do to an empty bag is cut it open looking for the drugs.

I also don’t see how a single, tenured professor doesn’t have any money. I guess he sent it all to the nigerian/fake girl.

I saw his internet girlfriend as fake a mile away esp when he never talked to her on the phone. Pretty amateur scam. A pro scammer would use a skype loop or female accomplice to bait the mule so he’s probably dealing with petty thugs. He’s actually lucky he was caught and only did 2yrs + house arrest in Argentina instead of meeting up with the gangsters waiting for the coke in Europe who probably would’ve bashed his head in and then taken the bag without explaining anything.

Daedalus March 28, 2013 9:24 PM

It is a good strategy. It does not matter if it is a woman, if it is gold, or whatever prize it may be. It just has to be the prize the person wants.

The trick is to get them to believe it is true. But, because people believe what they want to believe based on their preferences, they simply need a nudge or two in the right direction.

Coyne Tibbets March 29, 2013 12:14 AM

Usually, it’s girls carrying for some guy (as in Brokedown Palace). But I have to say he seems a lot less unwitting–a lot more culpable–than the naive tourists presented in the movie.

Adam March 29, 2013 6:29 AM

What makes the story more incredible is the man was emailed and told not only was his girlfriend probably fake, but that the bag he was given would contain drugs. And he ignored those warnings. How can you not even notice that an “empty” bag is suspiciously heavy what with the 2Kg of drugs inside it?

dennis March 29, 2013 8:38 AM

i didn’t get the name of the person who i heard this from, but “mule of passion”

Rookie March 29, 2013 8:53 AM

After reading the story, I think both things are true about this guy. First, he was arrogant more than naive; so full of hubris that he really believed a much younger international supermodel would fall madly in love with him over the Internet.

Secondly, based on the texts he sent leading up to his arrest, he knew exactly what was in the “empty” bag and being arrogant, assumed he could get away with it, maybe to properly impress his ‘girlfriend’.

The only thing that really seems strange about the whole story is why the dealers/smugglers would go to the elaborate lengths of faking an online romantic relationship in order to get a mule to make the trip for them. It seems to me that kind of scenario would have a low chance of success, and you could find any number of dissaffected youth in the USA that would be willing to take that kind of risk for $10k in cash and a free flight to an exotic country.

jb March 29, 2013 9:45 AM

As you have often written, people’s security awareness depends on context. Some people know to be very careful in the “clicking on a link on the internet” context; others know to be very careful in the “leaving your drink unattended in a bar” context.

A very smart, normally security-aware person might not transfer that awareness to the “I might get to hook up with a hot person” context. By shifting the target’s categorization of the situation, it is possible to get them to overlook things they wouldn’t otherwise overlook.

Steven Hoober March 29, 2013 9:45 AM

Could that possibly be a useful enough recruiting strategy?

Economics says yes. If not, they’d stop doing it.

I am reminded that I have never put a CAPTCHA on any digital product, ever. And have designed products that were totally attacked by evil communist block bots.

One was a publicly-available messaging gateway. The bots were sending >200 messages a second through an http interface. Well, people can’t type that fast, so we added a (hidden, no user visibility) timer. Set around the minimum time a user could possibly take to type a message and press Send.

Took a few tweaks to timing to optimize it, but attacks dropped off to almost zero because it became inefficient to send a message every (n) seconds instead of many, many times a second.

Autolykos April 2, 2013 4:40 AM

I won’t call if he knew what was inside the bag, but I’m pretty sure that he would’ve went ahead anyway if he knew (maybe after asking his imaginary girlfriend about it – and it looks suspiciously like it happened that way). The easiest way to get someone to do something really stupid is to call him a coward, after all.

hello April 11, 2013 7:52 AM

I’m late here, but this specific guy has had issues with being too trusting before. So I doubt he knew, given there was no reason to tell him since drug smugglers could just run circles around him.

Leave a comment


Allowed HTML <a href="URL"> • <em> <cite> <i> • <strong> <b> • <sub> <sup> • <ul> <ol> <li> • <blockquote> <pre> Markdown Extra syntax via https://michelf.ca/projects/php-markdown/extra/

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.