International drug gangs prey on Filipinos abroad

International drug gangs prey on Filipinos abroad
Marites Veloso, sister of drug trafficking inmate Mary Jane Veloso, cries during a protest pleading President Benigno Aquino for help in her sister's case, in front of the Department of Foreign Affairs headquarters in Manila April 7, 2015.

MANILA - Filipina maid Mary Jane Veloso faces imminent execution in Indonesia, but relatives say her only crime was to fall victim to international drug gangs who are threatening to kill them if they speak out.

Echoing horror stories told by hundreds of other Filipinos in jails around the world, the 30-year-old single mother claims she was duped into ferrying narcotics.

She insists she would never have gambled her life and two sons' futures on a bag of heroin. But she is one of several foreigners whose executions for drug crimes are drawing closer in Indonesia.

Veloso believes, according to her parents, that she was tricked by a criminal gang as she desperately sought work overseas as a maid.

Her father, Cesar, 59, said those involved in setting up his daughter had repeatedly contacted him and other relatives to warn them against going public.

"My daughter's recruiters have been threatening us... they threatened to kill us one by one," the father said as he cried and his grandsons sat silently next to him during an interview in Manila.

Veloso lived in a poor farming region about three hours' drive north of Manila. Life became increasingly tough after she broke up with her sons' father and had to provide for them alone.

She flew to Malaysia after being promised a job there, but was told on arrival that the only work available was actually in Indonesia, her parents said.

While in Malaysia, the drugs were secretly sewn into her suitcase, according to her parents.

Veloso was arrested five years ago at Yogyakarta airport with 2.6 kilogrammes (5.73 pounds) of heroin in her suitcase. She is on death row with others including two Australians and a Frenchman whose legal appeals are all but exhausted.

Easy prey for ruthless gangs

Veloso fell prey to a common scam, according to Garry Martinez, chairman of overseas workers' rights group Migrante, which has been organising near-daily protest rallies for her in Manila.

There are roughly 10 million Filipinos working overseas - many as maids, labourers and in other lowly paid professions -- because there are so few job opportunities at home.

With many coming from poor farming areas and lacking in street smarts, they are easy pickings for international crime gangs on the hunt for drug mules, Martinez told AFP at a recent rally.

"The ones who are victimised by the drug syndicates overseas are already often the victims of illegal recruitment or maltreatment," he said. "They are already vulnerable."

The drug syndicates are generally run by Africans, according to Migrante and the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency.

Five Filipinos have been executed in China since 2011 for drug trafficking, foreign affairs spokesman Charles Jose told AFP.

There are another 41 currently on death row overseas, almost all in China and Malaysia, and more than 800 others in jails abroad serving lesser sentences for drug offences, he said.

Jose said the government and police worked hard to educate Filipinos heading overseas about the dangers of drug gangs, and there were warnings at Philippine airports.

- 'Who shall we kill first?' -

But the quick cash on offer is too tempting for some, according to the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency.

The gangs typically offer between $3,000 and $15,000 for carrying drugs between countries aboard an airline, it said in a factsheet sent to AFP.

Martinez acknowledged that, unlike in Veloso's case, many mules did indeed know they were carrying the drugs.

"(But) they are forced to do it, otherwise they or their families in the Philippines will be killed," Martinez said.

He cited the example of one man Migrante tried to help after he travelled to Thailand for what he thought was legitimate work.

"When he arrived in Thailand, he was offered money to bring drugs into China," Martinez said.

"When he refused, the syndicate called his family back in the Philippines and he spoke to them. He was then asked: 'Which one of them do you want to be killed first?'"

Cesar Veloso said the family, fearing retribution from his daughter's recruiters, remained silent for many years, but recently began its high-profile campaign in a last-ditch bid to save her.

The grandparents and young sons, aged 12 and six, spend their days attending the rallies in Manila, hoping that publicising Veloso's story may save her from the firing squad.

At the rallies, Veloso's younger son, Mark Darren, sings his mother's favourite song, which they sang together when the family last saw her in prison in February.

"Don't lose hope. Happiness will come. Remember that there is always tomorrow," he quietly sang into a microphone.

But with Indonesian President Joko Widodo seemingly determined to execute Veloso and the other foreigners under his war on drugs, happiness may not be what tomorrow brings.

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