Friday, 5 May 2017

COLOMBIA: Drug Tourism Rising But You May End Up In Prision Like Australian Ms Sainsbury

Gangs of criminals pose as cab drivers and pounce on vulnerable Westerners, driving them around at gunpoint to various ATMs until their accounts are drained of cash.

Then there’s the risk of accepting a drink in a bar from an attractive stranger, or even briefly leaving yours unattended, and winding up drugged and led back to your hotel, where you’re robbed of your valuables or worse.

And it’s not just drink spiking that travellers need to be wary of savvy gangs also use aerosol sprays and chewing gum laced with drugs to incapacitate their victims.

For every safe and tourist-friendly destination in Colombia, there are probably two or three more perilous ones that even seasoned globetrotters should avoid, experts say.

The notorious country is in the headlines this week following the arrest of Cassie Sainsbury, who was found with 5.8 kilograms of cocaine in her luggage as she tried to board a flight home to Australia via London on April 11.

Exactly what the 22-year-old former personal trainer was doing alone in Bogota remains shrouded in mystery, especially when safety experts tend to advise against solo travel.

South America is an increasingly popular destination for Aussies..

However Colombia is still scary for many, thanks to the fear factor it carries.

It’s possible to visit Bogota and even the formerly wild city of Medelin, the home town of infamous billionaire cartel boss Pablo Escabar, and have a safe and pleasant time.

But that’s provided travellers exercise high levels of caution, Ms Fryar said.

Don’t be flashy with your jewellery or clothes, for example. It’s still quite a poor country so you’ve got to be sensitive to that.

Avoid carrying your passport and large amounts of cash and have only low-limit credit cards. We wouldn’t recommend hailing taxis either.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said instances of ‘express kidnapping’ have increased, where victims are “abducted, often in taxis, and forced to withdraw funds from ATMs before being released.”

Some foreigners have been seriously injured or killed in scuffles with their captors, it says.

Robberies after victims have been drugged are also common, DFAT reports, usually after tourists have accepted spiked food, drinks and even cigarettes and chewing gum.

Thieves have also used drugs, such as scopolamine, by aerosol spray or paper handouts, it said.

World Nomads receives a number of calls from travellers who’ve had their drinks spiked, not just in Colombia but across South America and Latin America.

Scopolamine is derived from the borrachero tree found in Colombia’s jungles and is considered one of the most dangerous drugs in the world.

It’s known colloquially as “devil’s breath” and is famed for its stupefying qualities. Those affected usually fall into a zombie state.

That makes it a popular tool of criminals.

Scopolamine is odourless and tasteless, and can be administered via food, drinks or simply blown into someone’s face.

You can guide them wherever you want, a local drug dealer says.

The after-effects can include lingering memory loss, among other health issues. In high doses it can be fatal.

Colombia was a no go destination due to its infamous drug wars.

Terror reigned in most parts of the country, with bombings and brutal murders commonplace.

Things have changed a lot now.

In the past 10 years or so particularly, things have really turned around. The crime rate has decreased the murder rate in Bogota is lower than in some US cities.”

Tourism is a growing industry and Colombian authorities are eager to portray a very different image of the country to the one made iconic by pop culture, including Netflix series Narcos.

I say go, says Fryar, an expert in international travel safety.

There’s so much to explore national parks, gorgeous museums and cathedrals, rich history, great food and coffee but there’s lots to avoid too.

The Australian government maintains stern warnings to travellers, advising they avoid significant parts of the country.

Cosmopolitan Bogota, which DFAT says should be experienced with a high degree of caution, is surrounded on all sides by regions that Australian authorities should be avoided at all costs.

Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, is the drug cartels’ militia and has been effectively at war with the government for decades.

The two have been attempting to broker a peace deal with mixed success for years, but there are rebel groups who continue to wreak havoc.

There are a number of regions that are quite unstable and dangers, and should be avoided all together.

Avoid most rural areas, anywhere near the Venezuelan border where there’s likely to be smuggling, you’ve got be sensible when travelling in Colombia.

It’s in many of those dangerous regions that a rising number of Westerners are venturing, for the express purpose of doing drugs.

In Colombia, you can visit a cocaine plantation and manufacturing laboratory for just $50, and walk away with a gram of the drug to sample.

There are cooking classes and taste-testing workshops dotted around the country, particularly in the unruly south.

Drug tourism is a growing trend that’s alarming experts..

It’s of major concern and surprise.

Travellers to Colombia should not:

— carry large amounts of cash and stash your passport somewhere safe

— wear flashy jewellery or clothing

— do anything illegal

— take drugs

— accept packages from strangers of leave luggage unattended

— hail taxis

— leave drinks unattended or accept drinks from strangers

— travel to regions of significant risk.

Colombian police have revealed more information about the tip-off that led to Cassie Sainsbury’s arrest, saying they had been looking for the Australian for a week.

It was previously reported Ms Sainsbury, 22, was arrested at a Bogota airport after a tip-off from the US Drug Enforcement Agency. One of the red flags raised was related to a last minute airline ticket bought for Ms Sainsbury by an unknown party in Hong Kong.

But it’s now been confirmed that police were on the alert much earlier, with a tip-off about Ms Sainsbury received on April 5, a couple of days after she arrived in Colombia and a week before she tried to depart the country on April 12.

Jorge Mendoza, the ports and airports director for Colombia’s anti-narcotic police told Colombian journalist Carlos Colina the tip-off included Ms Sainsbury’s name, nationality and photo.

He said authorities searched through airline ticket records but could not find travel booked under Ms Sainsbury’s name and so were a bit confused about it.

But at the very last moment, they were alerted to a ticket purchased for someone of that name, which led them to intercept Ms Sainsbury at the airport.

Mr Mendoza said he didn’t want to speculate about whether Ms Sainsbury was guilty and even though the drugs were in her suitcase, he really felt sorry for the Australian.

Earlier this week, Mr Mendoza said he doubted Ms Sainsbury didn’t know about the drugs.

Her explanation is not credible. Everyone we catch says they didn’t know it was in their luggage, he said.

Ms Sainsbury is facing up to 20 years in jail after she was arrested at El Dorado International Airport with 5.8kg of cocaine in her luggage.

She has told her family that she thought the packages were headphones she bought as gifts from an interpreter that she trusted.

Days after retreating from the spotlight following a fundraising backlash, Ms Sainsbury’s fiance Scott Broadbridge fronted a media pack in Adelaide today, admitting there was still much he and her legal team didn’t know about Cassandra’s trip to Colombia.

The 23-year-old insisted she was innocent however, and said he was not going to give up on her.

Cassie is innocent of these charges and I will support her no matter how long this takes, he said.

Cass and I are engaged to be married and I intend to marry her. Cass is the delight of my life. I know that she’s not involved in the drug trade. And I know that she was not deliberately taking drugs or carrying drugs anywhere.

He would not answer specific questions about the case.

I know there are many unanswered questions in this case. And I intend to work with the lawyers to get to the bottom of them. At this time I just wish to concentrate on doing whatever we can to help Cass and to help her through this time.

I hope to be able to get over there soon. And I hope that we are able to prove her innocence.

Yesterday, CCTV footage emerged showing Ms Sainsbury checking out of a Bogota hotel shortly before being arrested.

The manager of the Bogota hotel where Ms Sainsbury stayed said that Cassie stood out because she arrived without a reservation and paid for her accommodation only two days at a time.

She was alone most of the time in her room. I remember once she went and brought McDonalds back to eat, manager Ingrid Hernandez said.

She said Ms Sainsbury’s only visitor was a well-dressed Colombian man, understood to be the person who tricked her into packing the drugs in her suitcase.

Ms Sainsbury has told her friends and family that the man’s name was Angelo but doesn’t know his surname.

Ms Sainsbury is behind bars in the notorious El Buen Pastor women’s prison.

The prison is hugely overcrowded and criminals there live alongside their children. Her lawyer said she was “traumatised” and hardly eating.

Colombia is the world’s largest producer of cocaine and its police among the best-trained to detect and stop drug smuggling thanks in part to billions of dollars in US anti-narcotics aid that has strengthened law enforcement.

A Colombian judge presiding over Cassie Sainsbury’s cocaine case has revealed his thoughts about her situation as she languishes in jail.

Judge John Jairo Zambrano said she was too young to be caught up in something like this.

What caught my eye was her age. She was 22, too young to be caught up in something like this, he said.

On a tape she can be heard saying: “My name is Cassandra Leigh Sainsbury. I am an Australian. I was staying at Hotel Inter Bogota.

“I do not accept the charges filed by the prosecutor.”

Australian diplomats are trying to convince Colombian authorities to let accused drug mule Cassie Sainsbury serve her almost certain jail sentence at home.

The 22-year-old Adelaide woman is being advised to accept the charges against her in order to reduce her sentence after she was caught with about 6kg cocaine in her suitcase at Bogota’s El Dorado airport last month.

Her Bogota lawyer Orlando Herran said that Australian diplomats are working on a deal that would see her move from El Buen Pastor women’s jail to one in Australia, but only after a conviction was recorded.

The revelation comes as new light was shed on how Sainsbury spent her nine days in Bogota, with the manager of the hotel where she stayed saying she stood out because she arrived without a reservation and only paid for her accommodation two days at a time.

She was a very quiet person. And she is very young. She’s like a girl. Very young, said Ingrid Hernandez the Manageress of the Hotel she stayed at.

It claimed my attention that she was so young and on her own. If you visit a country like Colombia, you should spend a night drinking in a bar, or going to a restaurant and eat delicious food.

She was alone most of the time in her room. I remember once she went and brought McDonalds back to eat.

Ms Hernandez said Sainsbury’s only visitor was a well-dressed Colombian man, understood to be the mysterious Angelo, who is accused of tricking Sainsbury into packing the drugs into her suitcase in the mistaken belief that the packages contained headphones.

He was a young guy but older than her. He looked normal. Normal height, normal build. He could have been in his late 20s, 30s. He had short brown gelled hair she said.

Sainsbury has told her lawyers and family she doesn’t know the surname of Angelo, a local she met after arriving in Bogota on April 3 at the tail end of six month world trip.

Mr Herran said Cassie returning home was the best-case scenario Australian diplomats and her legal team were working towards.

It’s a deal between the Australian consulate and Colombia. It’s a diplomatic process, Mr Herran said.

The consulate in Colombia has been very aware of the case of Cassandra, they have been visiting her, once a week.

In Colombia this has happened a few times.

There have been times where other countries have sent Colombians back to carry out their sentences. Other times, Colombia has sent people back to other countries.

Mr Herran said it was expected the negotiations would be protracted, given there is no formal prisoner exchange program between the two countries, and said he considered they had a 50-50 chance of success.

Australia previously attempted unsuccessfully to arrange a prisoner exchange treaty with Indonesia in the cases of accused drug smugglers Schapelle Corby, Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran

Normally, it works very well when there is an international agreement between the two countries, that pertains to these situations. However, the vast majority of countries don’t have this kind of deal. Australia doesn’t have this kind of deal,” he said.

It could be months before Sainsbury’s matter is heard.

Any kind of exchange would be contingent upon a conviction in Colombia.

A spokesperson for Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said: As set out in Consular Services Charter, the Australian Government cannot intervene in another country’s court proceedings or legal matters.