SAO PAOLO, Brazil — “You cannot say any woman who does this is a greedy woman or a cheap woman. If you look at the women here and you listen to their stories, you will see these are mothers, sisters and wives," said one South African prisoner at the Sao Paulo Capital Penitentiary for Women.

Sao Paulo Guarulhos International airport is the main exit point for drug mules carrying cocaine from South America to the rest of the world. With flight connections to 53 other countries, it is well positioned to supply the increasing global demand for cocaine. On average, five people a day are arrested there for international drug trafficking.

Less than 10 years ago there were only 40 foreign women imprisoned in the state of Sao Paulo. Today there are more than 400, all housed at the Capital Penitentiary for Women. The largest numbers come from South Africa.

Many of the women in prison for drug trafficking had never committed a crime previously. They are often destitute and traffickers promise that there is little risk of getting caught. For women with nothing, the payout (between about $800 and $9,500) can change their lives. So the women keep on coming.

But many of these women were never meant to succeed. Before they even reach the airport, an anonymous phone call, supplying their name and description, is placed to the police — often by the very same people who had employed them to carry the drugs — as a ploy to detract the authorities from a more lucrative load.

These women see very little of the real profits of international drug trafficking and, if caught, face long sentences of three to 15 years in a foreign jail, far away from their homes and children. They are entitled to just two phone calls a year.

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