Drug mules are all over the news these days. We can all argue about whether these people are bad, misguided, helpless, oppressed or evil monsters in an evil trade, but why are they called drug mules? And what happens when we use that particular term?

Surely a (drug) “mule” refers to exactly the same type of person as a (drug) “smuggler”, or a (drug) “courier” or (drug) “trafficker”? They all transport contraband, almost always surreptitiously, often across international borders, right?

But language is never so simple and transparent. Each term (mule / trafficker / courier etc) is problematic because each one is surrounded by its own particular cloud of connotations and cultural baggage.

Take “courier”. Of all the terms I’ve mentioned so far, it has the least whiff of illegality about it. The word is more associated with the legal profession – as in “legal couriers” who escort important documentation or goods across borders (or, in the case of my Moss Reid story “Way To Go”, across Ireland from Dublin to Galway). Or the word has associations with the everyday business world of bike couriers and so on.

(Mind you, there was an Irish film back in 1988 in which a motorbike courier was an inadvertent drugs courier. It was called The Courier. Here’s an awful American trailer for it, but I think I’m going off on a tangent and about to crash…)

But back to the “drugs mule” term. Mule usually implies at least some of the following…

1. Not self-employed

The person doing the smuggler is doing it for someone else – as opposed to, say, being a self-employed operation.

Besides not being self-employed, the mule may also be a powerless victim, and possibly forced into the role. Or they’re doing it for easy money.

2. A deceiver

Yet to fulfil this subordinate role in the operation the mule must also act as a knowing deceiver in order to get through the various border controls.

3. A sweater (or do I mean perspirer?)

This mule-as-a-knowing-deceiver role involves – at least in fiction – being in a constant sweat about the deception being uncovered. Hence the terrible cliché “sweating like a drug mule”.

Take the following newspaper article that compares a canny passenger at an airport wearing a “luggage coat” (with many pockets, to beat Ryanair’s baggage rules) to a drug mule:

I know. I look ridiculous, and with 9 kilos of clothes, toiletries, books, keys, passports and sun cream in the six pockets of my shiny black nylon coat, I am sweating like a drug mule at a Turkish airport, but who cares?

Irish Times 11 July 2013

The same newspaper seems to have a thing about this “sweating mule at airports” metaphor.

Luckily for you, the definition of ‘coat’ in airline speak is nice and loose and you can buy a coat with 40 different pockets that can fit all your luggage. You’ll end up sweating like a drug mule crossing a country’s border, but does it really matter when you’re saving money?

Irish Times, 18 September 2015

4. A woman

“Mule” may also come with gender assumptions. In fiction and real-life media coverage alike, the gang leader in drug trafficking is assumed to be male – a not unreasonable guess perhaps – while the mule is thought more likely to be female. But who’d have accurate statistics on the latter? I don’t.

At the heart of this assumption is that he is the “brains” of the business, while she is the “mere body”.

You can see this sexual division of labour (and power) in, say, the Irish crime drama Love/Hate, where Siobhán is the mule who panics after the airport check-in, and it’s Tommy who has to calm her down and who calls Darren to come up with a cunning plan to get her bags back.

Another twist on the brains-v-body distinction is that he’s the brains and she’s the beauty, as in a deliberate distraction. There are some real-life instances of this:

Because a woman could use her appearance to bypass security officers, DTO [drug trafficking organisation] affiliates began attending beauty pageants held in Latin America in order to approach contestants with the lures associated with drug trafficking and the income it is capable of providing. One example of an extremely successful woman is famed Colombian beauty queen and lingerie model, Angie Valencia, who was supposedly using other young, beautiful models to transport drugs in an international cocaine ring.

5a. And a bit in the dark

So far we’ve established that the mule is not self-employed, not in control of the entire operation, not the brains but possibly a woman who is probably good looking. It also follows from this subordinate role that the person may not know the full extent of the operation.

There are numerous examples in which the smugglers only discover on arrest that they were carrying a different type of drug or larger quantities than they were led to believe.

5b. Or completely in the dark

Sometimes there may be no conscious deception by the mules at all, because they – or their unwitting accomplices – are completely in the dark, and will often be described in the media as “unsuspecting” or “blameless”. In film, it’s that Bridget Jones: the Edge of Reason moment. The innocent abroad.

Granny discovers €30k drug stash in case four years after holiday. The unsuspecting drug mule originally thought it was a freshener packet.
– Dailyedge.ie, 15 January 2014

(The harbour police) noted the blameless cab driver’s number and gardaí traced him to the Red Cow roundabout as he was dropping off the drug mule.
– Irish Times, 16 August 2014

6. Or dead

At one extreme (MAJOR PLOT SPOILERS AHEAD!), the most innocent, unsuspecting, blameless and out-of-the-loop mule is a very young baby (drugs being smuggled in nappy by an inmate in Orange is the New Black, anybody?) or a very dead body.

Films and crime novels love a dead mule. Remember Diamonds Are Forever, where Bond uses the corpse and coffin of a diamond smuggler to smuggle gems through customs?

Or Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse, where gangsters smuggle drugs from Asia into the US in the bodies of dead soldiers being shipped home from ‘Nam?

Or Len Deighton’s Funeral in Berlin, in which the Soviet defector is supposed to be smuggled through the Wall in a coffin?


7. Or a stubborn and stupid old animal

Yes, let’s not forget the biggest elephant in the room: the term “drug mule” compares a human to an animal. And that is bound to make it a very loaded term, particularly when the animal in question is a beast of burden, the sterile offspring of a donkey and a horse.

A mule is associated with stubbornness (“stubborn as a…”), and with a lack of intelligence and being clumsy or inept.

Somewhere deep down in the cluster of meanings, a “mule” also implies that the person is not only a mere pawn in the operation but one who is also a bit slow on the uptake, and possibly too young or old “to know better”. Which may be patronising, even when used by those defending the person in question.

In one recent court case in Dublin, a defence counsel said that his client “was not someone who would be expected to be back before the court”, because his “level of ignorance of drugs was such that he did not know the physical level at which heroin was to be found”.

The counsel for the co-accused told the same court that his client “must be the oldest drugs mule to come before the criminal courts in Ireland” and how “he had not come across an older one himself”.

The oldest drugs mule. And that’s a line from the defence.