Drug Mulesby Brandon Edmonds / 11.01.2012
A Black Market Eucharist for the 21st Century
The population of Ecuador is Roman Catholic. As much as 95% in the CIA World Factbook. So it’s a safe bet that the 48-year old Ecuadorian man who was arrested at OR Tambo airport on Christmas day and who, according to News24, “during excretion (in custody) let off plastic containers that had liquid cocaine” was himself a believer. If he was a believer he would have experienced the Eucharist which is, as an online dictionary puts it, quite beautifully, with the terseness of Hemingway, “a ceremony in which bread is eaten and wine is drunk as a way of showing devotion to Jesus Christ”. By flipping a few terms in that definition we get at what drug mules essentially do: “an activity in which valuable toxic substances are eaten and carried across borders in the body as a way of surviving harsh economic times”. A new globalised black market Eucharist for the 21st Century.
Anyway, the man, “the Ecuadorian drug mule”, as News24 puts it, stumbling on a kind of beat poetry, died. And the police, in a sublime statement that suggests a little of the inhumanity of late capitalism, and the debasing nature of work today, had this to say: “Current diagnosis indicates a heart attack due to drug overdose. The value of the cocaine will be determined in due course.”
The commodity outlives the body. The body perishes but the coke (and the criminal network behind it) persists. It outlives the mule. It overrides/derides it’s own carrier. The stuff counts. ‘The value of the cocaine’ is worth more than a human life. It destroyed a man from the inside out. That kind of hazardous expendability applies to each of us. We are expendable to capital. Especially in a downturn. The Guardian called the international economy “a tinderbox” after an International Labour Organisation report found “entrenched levels of unemployment among the young” and “more than 1.5 billion people – half the global working population – in vulnerable or insecure jobs.”
Habits of journalism in the online era, the hit-trawling build to an implicating crescendo, insist I write: We are all drug mules now. And I guess, in a way, we are, those of us lucky enough to be employed, labouring on behalf of largely toxic goods and services, stuck in a system that demeans us. Aren’t we?
The case of Janice Linden, a South African drug mule recently executed in China, is even more illuminating; a cautionary tale about the losing battle between life and the commodity, with a very sad ending.
After the lethal injection and cremation, her ashes were returned to her family in, merci News24 once more, “a plain brown cardboard box wrapped in masking tape with a DHL sticker”. In other words, Linden became a commodity again, a package with a price tag, even in death. She never once escaped the logic of exchange. Executed by a State that is itself ambiguously situated in the global economy (accusations of currency devaluation, super-exploitation, and copyright piracy). Shipped home in a computer-coded box tracked by a multinational company, Linden became the inversion of the drug mule she allegedly was (and she insisted to the end that the drugs were planted on her). Instead of carrying something valuable inside of herself, or on her person, she herself became the commodity. Dust in a box. A legitimate instance of global exchange only once the commodity swallowed her whole. “They weren’t even decent enough to put her in an urn… she was somebody’s child.” Her weeping nephew said.
There are many Janice Lindens. South Africans morphing into drug mules as jobs dry up and prices rise. There are over 600 of us in prisons all over the world for drug trafficking. This past December alone: a South African woman is arrested in Harare, coming from India with two kilo’s of coke, another in Mozambique on Christmas Eve and another in Nigeria. African bodies have complex histories of border crossing. For work, to escape conflagration, societal breakdown, in protest and vying for a better life. Why not drug smuggling? One passage and you’re solvent for a while. One passage and you suddenly have options, you have a life. You’re a consumer.
We began with the perversion of the Eucharist and we’ll end with the subversion of another spiritual practice: dreadlocks. The ‘dread’ in dreadlocks relates to the wearer “living a dread life or a life in which he feared God” according to Wiki. I prefer the version of the term that takes us back to Kenya and the Mau Mau Rebellion against the British in the 1950s. The unsparing dreadlocked insurgents made the colonials shit themselves, filled them with dread. The post-colonial decline of the dreadlock as a progressive symbol, little more than an ethnic tramp stamp by now, a barbed wire bicep tattoo, is resoundingly confirmed by yet another South African drug mule’s recent arrest.
Striking 23-year old Nolubabalo “Babsie” Nobanda, from Grahamstown, was cuffed in Bangkok with 1.5kg’s of cocaine in her dreadlocks. Ever sensitive to nuanced political and cultural dynamics, 2 Oceans Vibe ran a “fun” gallery of her “cocaine dreadlocks”. The images of the woman having her locks unpicked by Thai customs officials and cops, men in surgical gloves and suits manhandling her hair, are creepy. At once futuristic and historical. A kind of postmodern slave block. A black woman reduced again to her own physicality. The trade secrets of her body. She hid the contraband in her own ethnicity. Turned her dreads into camouflage. Hollowing out their meaning in exchange for money. It really is suggestive. We could fill volumes about the commodification of blackness. Instead the last word goes to a slavering idiot on a News24 comment thread about drug mules: “They knew the risks and they took them. Why? Because the higher the risks the bigger the payoffs.” Precisely the logic, you’ll notice, of the stock exchange.