In 2007, the Estonian economy was booming with salaries rising overnight and newspapers reporting only good news. At the same time another boom was taking place with dozens of young Estonian men being captured working as “drug mules” in Europe and in South-America.
In 2008, a young Estonian by the name of Toomas Nurmik was killed in a Venezuelan prison.*
Nobody knows why, or for what reason. At the time of Toomas’s murder, his older brother, Inno Nurmik, was also in prison – serving an 8 year sentence in Estonia.
“They were good guys in their youth,“ remembers one of their childhood friends.
True, they came from an ordinary family and there was nothing to predict how badly their futures would turn out, but both took the same path in the end. Toomas and Inno became drug mules. Their careers were short (not even particularly bright and tragic in the case of Toomas) but they were also prolific and significant. Veiko Germann from the National Criminal Police believes that these two brothers were the initial source, or at least one of the sources, introducing the drug mule as “a job opportunity“ for Estonian youth. Within a year they made several trips, but more importantly, they recruited new mules, spreading information about this and dragging dozens of their friends, acquaintances and even total strangers into the circle.
Before the Nurmik brothers entered the stage, there had been few cases of Estonian drug mules. The most notorious case occured in 1995 when Estonian Ervin Bernhardt was caught and sentenced to death in Thailand. Bernhardt was not some poor boy from the countryside. He may have been a hippie type, a traveller and adventurer, but he was well educated and not the typical drug mule. Luckily for him, his sentence was reduced and he returned to Estonia. Today he works for a small publishing house and released his prison memoirs last year titled “My Bangkok“. But his case and other earlier incidents were isolated, and nothing bigger eventuated. All this changed in 2006-2007.
The critical conversation took place somewhere at the beginning of 2006. Toomas Nurmik told his brother Inno that he knew of a lucrative business: you could carry cocaine and earn thousands of euros from one trip. Toomas even had a phone number – a guy called Mike in the Netherlands. The wheels began to turn.
While Toomas ”operated“ in South America, Inno´s career was developing in Europe. Not long after the conversation, Inno called Mike and told him that he wanted to earn some and money was ready to carry drugs. Mike was a nice guy and purchased the plane ticket from Tallinn to Amsterdam. On a cold winter day in February Inno boarded the plane. Arriving at Schipol airport, he was taken to small apartment, where he met his new bosses, two black guys, one the aforementioned Mike and another who went by the nickname ”Funny“.
The deal was simple – you carry, we pay
Inno swallowed 50 capsules of cocaine (in total about half a kilo) and travelled to London. ”Funny“ even gave him 300 pounds of pocket money. Everything went smoothly. Neither the police nor airport security paid him any attention. In London, Inno successfully excreted the capsules and handed them over next to a train station. He received 1,000 UK pounds and 1,000 euros for this trip. The first job had been completed and the next one soon followed.
The second was a similar trip from Amsterdam to London, as was the third. The money was coming in easily, but was also being spent quickly on booze and parties. Around this time the brothers began expanding their business. They didn’t want to be just drug mules, but recruiters as well. Their first recruit, 22 year old Jaanus Pani, actually approached them himself. He did not know the Nurmik brothers personally, but had heard of them and knew that they were making good money. The brothers agreed, but demanded 2,000 euros from Pani to get him into the “game”. Anyway, on the next trip Inno Nurmik was already travelling together with Jaanus Pani, this time from Amsterdam to Tenerife. On this trip they were also accompanied by Inno Nurmik´s girlfriend and their 2 year old son.
Their circle began to grow and rumours started to spread. Their phone numbers were passed on. Newly recruited young men began to travel to Europe or South America hoping to earn some easy money.
The younger Nurmik brother, Toomas, had already been caught in Venezuela at this time. In a text message to his brother Inno, he beseeched him to stop his activities: “One brother in jail is enough“. But these second thoughts were only brief. Being in a Venezuelan prison, surrounded by criminals and drug dealers with their range of contacts and offers Toomas was very soon in even deeper. In his next text message, he asked his brother to find mules who were willing to travel between Europe and South America. He even bragged that his being in prison was helping them in their business. “Now we can make even more money,“ he texted. As a middleman he could get thousands of dollars for every mule he could find. It didn’t matter that many of the mules they found were quickly caught. For example, Tarvo Volmre and Danel Poom, two young men recruited by Nurmik were caught during their first trip at Caracas Airport.
After only a year or two, an activity that had so far been unknown in Estonia, became hot. Dozens of young Estonians (mostly young males) were caught in different countries in South America and in Europe. The Eesti Ekspress Newspaper called the situation an ”epidemic“. The Estonian consul in Argentina, Peet Pullisaar, quit his job because he was so tired of the Estonian drug mules who begged for his help. ”I don’t have time for my day job if so many drug mules are arrested. I have to deal with them all the time,“ Pullisaar complained. The epidemic peaked in 2009, when 56 Estonian drug mules were caught. As we don’t have exact data from 2007 when many people were also caught, we cannot be 100% sure as to which year was the most prolific.
Spent money on booze, girls and cars
If we look at the timeline, at least in the case of Estonia, we cannot purely blame the economic crisis. In 2007, the economy and salaries were booming, but so was drug trafficking. A better explanation can be found in the lifestyle and background of drug mules. The majority of them are young males between 20-35 years. Some of them have previous criminal records, but nothing serious – speeding or a bar fight – they may not be model citizens, but generally they weren’t career criminals. For example, Inno Nurmik, one of the ringleaders had two previous sentences for drink driving.
The majority of the mules were not very well educated. They were the types who jumped from one job or opportunity to another. Many of them had small debts. They loved partying, fancy clothes, spent money on booze, girls and cars. Their philosophy on life was simple: quick and easy money.
Drug trafficking was not very sophisticated or glamorous. Toomas and Inno Nurmik were succesful recruiters, but this didnt mean that they were crime lords living in a beautiful mansion. They recruited, but also continued to work as mules. The technique was simple. The capsules were swallowed, but if the amounts were larger, then they carried them under their clothes or in their bags.
Varmo Tamm, a young man from Jõgeva, who is today sitting in prison in Peru, described to Re:baltica how eight packages of cocaine were tied around his legs in a way that he had trouble walking properly. To be honest, you’d have to be quite silly to think that nobody would notice. There’s the case of Mati Tammekänd, a regular guy without a criminal record who was recruited by Inno Nurmik. In the Netherlands, he was supposed to swallow dozens of capsules, but was only able to swallow one. He buried the rest of the cocaine in the ground expecting to return later. Unfortunately, when he arrived to Estonia (with one capsule in his stomach) he was arrested and sent to prison.
The Nurmik brothers’ careers also ended abruptly. As mentioned previously, the younger one was killed in Venezuela while the older brother, Inno, was caught in Estonia. He wanted to get out of drug trafficking – his girlfriend was complaining and he had a young son at home – he decided to do one final job. The idea was simple. Instead of carrying drugs from Amsterdam to the destination that his bosses requested, he decided to steal them, return to Estonia with the drugs and sell them himself. This had to be the last payday, with a large amount of drugs and a lot of cash. Inno Nurmik found two friends who agreed to travel to the Netherlands for this job. In the Netherlands, they got 1.2 kilos of cocaine, but everything went wrong from there. They were unable to swallow all of the cocaine, only 300 grams. They were arrested on the day after they arrived in Estonia. This was the end of Inno Nurmik´s career as a drug mule and recruiter.
Though the Nurmik brothers were the most successful recruiters, they were not only ones. Police estimate that there were 2-3 sources which began spreading the information and created the “epidemic“. Another such person was Daniil Danilov…
They were normal people
In 2009, Danilov, a young 23-year old man, heard from a friend that there were people in Italy who were looking for drug mules. It seems that drug traffickers seem to like similar nicknames, because Danilov’s contact person in Italy was also called Mike, just like Inno Nurmik´s boss in the Netherlands. But the business was different: it involved carrying heroin from Turkey, via different countries to Italy. The first job was unsuccessful.
Danilov found a mule, Pavel Neimõšev, but Neimõšev was caught on his first trip with 3.7 kilos of heroin at Bologna Airport. Danilov made the next trip himself. With his friend Giorgi Tsvervara, he travelled to Turkey and from there (together with 2 kilos of heroin) to Napoli, Italy. Both men were paid 2,500 euros plus travel expenses for this job. Later on, Danilov continued to expand his activities. Sometimes he worked as a drug mule himself, but more and more often he found new men and women ready to earn money. The majority of them had no previous criminal records. They were normal people. Some had been unlucky, were poor or out of a job.
Danilov even drew in his girlfriend and his father. His father, Anatoli, worked as a taxi driver. One day a friend of his approached him, complaining that he couldn’t find a job. Anatoli knew that his son was working as a drug trafficker, so he suggested that he talk to his son. This friend, who was called Mihhail greed, and recruited his girlfirend Natalja to participate as well. They then travelled to Turkey, transported 10.8 kilos of heroin from Turkey to Italy, but were caught immediately at Turin railway station. Once again, straight to prison from the first job.
Not only young men’s business
Today the picture has changed. The number of drug mules is diminishing, but it is not just young men who are involved any more. More and more women are getting involved, with older people and family people as well. There is the example of two married couples: Mart and Monika and Tarmo and Annika who were ordinary middle-aged people. Mart was a construction worker earning about 700-800 euros a month. His wife, Monika, was a barmaid earning 300 euros a month, but as she said, she got some extra money tax-free in an ”envelope“. Tarmo and Annika were earning even more: both were earning about 1,000 euros a month, so they were not poor. They had a farm and were also trying out their hand at different businesses. Annika also had an administrative position in the local community. Even so, Mart, Monika, Tarmo and Mart´s and Monika´s 20 year old son got in their old Mitsubishi and travelled to the Netherlands in 2008. This was supposed to be a vacation. Their son returned from Amsterdam to Tallinn as school was starting and he needed to return. The others continued their trip from Amsterdam to Oslo (now, with 39 kilos of hashish hidden in the car), where apparently they were to go skiing. In reality, they were working as drug mules.
They were caught in Norway. The men were sentenced and although the prosecutor was convinced that the women were also involved, as there were text messages and phone calls between Tarmo and Annika in which they’d been talking about the ”product“ and delivery, the court was not convinced and the wives were freed. As I am writing these lines, Tarmo has again been detained (he served his sentence in Norway and returned to Estonia), this time in the Netherlands. His friend and business partner said that it was not about drugs this time, but that the story was messy. It reveals at least one thing: when you get in, it’s hard to get out.
The third time I was used to killing
Although the number of drug mules is dropping, another problem has arisen: how to get out of the drug circle. Many of the drug mules are sitting in South American prisons, but when they get freed on parole they might not be able to leave the particular country. But what else can they can do in South America, with no money, no job, no friends or relatives and without permission to return home? Sometimes the only option is to ask help from your prison “friends“. But friends in prison can be dangerous people…
“The first time I witnessed a killing, it was awful. The second time was scary. The third time I was already used to it,“ says Jaanus Iljašenko, another young drug mule remembering his time in Caracas Prison. At first, Iljašenko worked as a drug mule in Europe, but later in South America. He got caught, but was lucky enough to stay alive and return to Estonia. In Estonia he has spoken of his experience in South America (sometimes it even seems that he has some bravado in his voice) to many media outlets, about what it’s like and how dangerous it is in a Venezuelan prison. For instance, if somebody gets killed in your block, then every inmate in the same block has to stab the person at least once – then everybody is involved and nobody will tell the guards – Iljašenko, shares his prison smarts.
Not everyone had his luck and was able to return. Toomas Nurmik´s death in Venezuela was mentioned previously. In January this year, about 69 people were killed in prison riots in Venezuela. At least one Estonian was doing his time in the same prison. A short message, ”Alive“, sent to his friends and relatives showed that he’d survived the riots. Venezuelan prisons are the most dangerous ones. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs says that even the consuls are scared of them. The local authorities also suggest that you not visit Venezuelan prisons and so the inmates are pretty much alone. Estonian officials cannot help them. Relatives do whatever they can. One family relates how they’ve sent thousands and thousands of euros so that their son can give this money to criminal bosses and stay alive. Everything costs money. You have to pay “rent“ to the guards, you have to pay “rent“ to your cell boss and you even have to pay for your bed. If you have no money, then you sleep on the floor. The contacts with home are short or random. A few text messages, sometimes a short post on a Facebook page. Just so others know that you are alive.
What awaits Baltic drug couriers in Peru. Read this report from Peru here – Baltic Drug Mules
*His first name has been changed. Some of the other people’s names have been changed, while for others only the first names have been used. All of the actual names are known by the author.