• October 27, 2020

Drug Traffickers Target American Seniors to be Drug Mules

 Drug Traffickers Target American Seniors to be Drug Mules

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo addresses senators in the Wisconsin State Capitol, but two US senators are demanding he focus his attention abroad. Photo via the State Department

Warn grandma and grandpa: Drug traffickers are targeting American senior citizens and turning them into drug trafficking mules. And two Democratic senators are demanding that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spend less time politicking here at home and fight harder for the release of the American elderly wrongly convicted abroad.

In March 2018, Victor Stemberger received an email inviting him into a promising business deal. The offer allegedly entailed delivering gifts and documents to officials in exchange for a lucrative payout. He jumped at the opportunity. In July 2019, the then-76-year-old traveled to Brazil on a trip that would take him from South America to Spain to eventually Asia. His contacts told him officials would visit his hotel in Sao Paolo to help transfer gifts into his luggage.

The next day, Stemberger was arrested in Madrid after cocaine was found sewn into jackets he had in his bag. After a year in pretrial detention, he finally got his day in court earlier this year. The Spanish court sentenced him to seven years in prison for drug trafficking, according to the Associated Press.

Stemberger’s just one of many senior citizens who have been tricked into becoming drug smuggling mules. In letters to the Departments of State and Homeland Security, Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine not only explained Stemberger’s situation but also demanded information about the departments’ effort to protect older Americans from being duped into drug trafficking schemes.

This month, Sens. Warner and Kaine wrote to senior Trump administration officials explaining that Stemberger and his family knew nothing about the drugs. Even a retired Drug Enforcement Administration (or DEA) who had worked the case said the 161 pages of emails he reviewed showed Stemberger was “completely unwitting.”

Additionally, Stemberger had an aneurysm in 2005, which diminished his mental capacity and decision-making abilities. That was affirmed by a medical expert during his trial. In a memorandum about his case from Oct. 2019, the Department of Justice also concluded Stemberger was “fraudulently deceived by members of a narcotics trafficking network into unwittingly transporting concealed controlled substances.”

In their letter to DHS officials, Warner and Kaine pointed out that for years federal officials have warned about scams targeting older Americans and tricking them into becoming “unwitting drug mules.” They asked about Operation COCOON, a program to track narcotic traffickers who target and manipulate older Americans into carrying drugs. They also inquired whether federal agencies did anything during the operation to prevent the arrest and prosecution of the victims of narco-traffickers. 

Warner and Kaine laid out a list of questions they want answered by September 28th regarding information and documentation on Operation COCOON, Stemberger and any other ongoing similar operations combatting criminal organizations preying on older seniors. 

With two prisoners in Stemberger’s section having contracted COVID-19, Warner and Kaine also asked the department to push for safer holding facilities for Stemberger during these ongoing efforts for his release. 

In their letter to Pompeo, Warner and Kaine also asked about Operation COCOON and whether the Department of State is aware of the operation. They also requested Pompeo’s “personal involvement”  in helping return Stemberger to America on humanitarian grounds. 

Gabrielle Lewis

Gabrielle Lewis

Gabrielle Lewis is a journalist at the University of Maryland College Park. She has written and edited for the school's flagship newspaper, The Diamondback, as well as other campus publications. You can find her on Twitter @gabrielleslewis.

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