Pubdate: Sun, 23 Jan 2005
Source: Observer, The (UK)
Copyright: 2005 The Observer
Author: Tony Thompson


Bill Burgess is due to sit his GCSEs in June but by then he could be serving
hard labour in Ghana

It was an offer no teenager could resist: not only would Bill Burgess miss
two weeks of school but he would swap the streets of Carlshalton, Surrey for
the tropical paradise of Ghana, the jewel of west Africa's Gold Coast.

Burgess, a tall, slightly built 15-year-old, had been to Ghana once before,
travelling with his brother and sister to visit relatives of his stepfather
Victor Gondah. He had been back in England only a few days when Gondah asked
Burgess if he would like to accompany him on a business trip back to Ghana.

Burgess spent his time relaxing and enjoying himself while Gondah worked on
finalising a property deal. But last October as the pair prepared to board
their return flight to London at Kotoko airport, they suddenly found
themselves surrounded by officials. Eight kilos of cocaine worth more than
?500,000 had been found inside Burgess's suitcase, the packages wrapped up
in his clothes. No drugs were found in the case containing Gondah's clothes.
Both were arrested on the spot and have been in custody ever since.

A trial is due to begin at the end of the month. Both Burgess and Gondah
insist they had no knowledge of the drugs, but if convicted they can expect
to be sentenced to 25 years' hard labour - the Ghanaian legal system makes
few concessions to youth. With no access to a telephone or a mail service,
the teenager has managed to get only one heart-rending message home through
British embassy officials. 'Tell my family I love them,' it said.

Burgess's mother, Amanda Brookes, insists her son has been set up and that
the drugs must have been placed in his case without his knowledge. 'How can
they think a 15-year-old boy would smuggle drugs?' she asked. 'He is still a
child and needs to be home with his family.'

Police in Ghana refused to accept the pair's pleas of innocence because
their statements - regarding their movements while in Ghana - differed.

New research shows the number of children caught smuggling drugs into
Britain is rocketing. A report published in the latest issue of the Journal
of Adolescence found that between 1992 and 1998 there was only one case of
someone aged under 18 being caught smuggling drugs. There were three cases
in 1999, seven in 2000 and 21 in 2001. The upward trend slows no sign of
slowing, with at least 40 under-age couriers believed to have been caught in
2003, the last year for which figures are available.

The authors of the study found that traffickers were effectively being
encouraged to use children as mules because they were less likely to be
stopped, and rarely convicted of trafficking offences, even if their cases
came to court, a reflection of the belief that many are used as cover for
smuggling without their knowledge or consent.

Of 19 cases examined in the report, only three resulted in convictions. Of
the remainder, 12 cases led to no further action, four were acquitted and
one courier was fined ?100.

'Despite the large estimated street value of some of the consignments,
criminal action was not often taken against the trafficker,' says one of the
report's authors, Dr Patrick Kennedy. 'The fact that little is done in the
way of sentencing adolescent drug traffickers means that they may continue
to be a useful means for large trafficking organisations to import drugs
into the UK.'

Last year Maureen Frazer was jailed for 14 years for conspiring to import
and supply cocaine. Frazer has four children and lived on income support but
drove a brand new BMW Z3 and wore Versace clothes.

She recruited girls aged between 16 and 18 and persuaded them to work as
mules. They were paid around ?2,000 a time to travel to the Caribbean and
bring back cocaine which would be concealed in the heels of specially made
shoes, soaked into the fabric of their clothes or wrapped in condoms and

Potential recruits would be groomed at a hotel on the outskirts of
Hampstead, north London, where they were asked to swallow whole grapes
dipped in honey to show they could be capable of swallowing packages of
cocaine. Police believe Frazer had been active since the early 1990s and,
through her young couriers, was responsible for bringing millions of pounds'
worth of cocaine into London. She was caught only when one of her teenage
mules told a social worker what she had been doing.

Because they are granted special protection by the courts, child drug mules
passing through the UK are rarely identified unless they are caught outside
the country.

In April 2002, 12-year-old Prince Nnaedozie Umegbolu developed severe
stomach pains soon after arriving alone in New York on a British Airways
flight from Heathrow. It transpired that he had swallowed 87 condoms
containing heroin. A US citizen, he told investigators he had been paid
around ?1,300 to smuggle the drugs.

Back in Carshalton, friends of Bill Burgess are hoping he will soon return.
'Bill is a lovely lad,' said Doug Bone, headteacher at Wandle Valley School,
where Burgess was to sit his GCSEs in June. 'We are all very shocked at what
has happened. The fact that he's out there and bearing in mind the
consequences of his alleged actions, the kids are all really worried.

'No one here believes he had any knowledge of what was going on. He is a
very popular boy and is a member of the school football team.

'He was expected to pass his exams with good grades. We're trying to find a
way to get in touch with him so all the kids can send him a card.' 
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