Why Some People Are More Vulnerable To Becoming Drug Mules

There are multiple cases of women who claim to have unknowingly smuggled drugs in and out of the country, but how does this happen?

A religious sister from Missouri, US was found smuggling about a kilo of cocaine  into Sydney hidden inside a pair of high-heel shoes.

Denise Woodrum's lawyer told the District Court the 51-year-old had met a man online and after starting an "intimate relationship" with him -- despite claims she has never seen him face-to-face-- believed she was making the trip to transport artefacts for the man and was unaware of the drugs.

While Crown prosecutor Ben Dunstan urged the judge to find Woodrum was aware she was smuggling the cocaine, the SMH reported, her story is not an unfamiliar one.

In 2013, Queensland kindergarten teacher Yoshe Ann Taylor was found attempting to board a flight to Australia from Phnom Penh Airport with 2.2kg of heroin in her backpack.

Now serving a 23-year sentence in a Cambodian prison, it was revealed this year Taylor was the victim of an internet dating scam, which lured her to Cambodia on promises of companionship and a career in an arts and crafts business.

Yoshe Ann Taylor and the man who scammed her, Nigerian national Precious Chineme Nwoko, who went by the pseudonym "Precious Max" online. Images: AAP

A year later, Australia grandmother-of-three Maria Elvira Pinto Exposto was arrested at a Kuala Lumpur airport with 1.1kg of crystal methamphetamine headed for Melbourne.

Exposto's lawyer said the Australian had also been tricked into carrying the drugs after falling for an online romance scam, and she was later found not guilty of drug trafficking. During the trial, the judge called her "naive", adding that her "feelings of love...[had] overcome everything."

But following an appeal by prosecutors, this verdict was overturned and the 54-year-old was sentenced to death in May this year.

Maria Elvira Pinto Exposto was sentenced to death by a Malaysian court earlier this year. Image: AAP

While the prospect of, even inadvertently, transporting drugs across borders for a faceless companion found online sounds extremely stupid for many of us, these cases beg the question of what makes someone both an attractive potential drug mule and vulnerable to becoming one.

Criminologist and psychologist Michelle Noon told ten daily, it's important to remember the drug trade is an industry-based business like many others. It requires consideration of the risks associated with the significant potential rewards.

"The first thing is that a risk of detection," Noon said.

"So you would want to be selecting drug mules who are going to minimise the risk of being detected and there are certain people who have lower risk going through places like airports and coming off cruise ships."

As a result, Noon said people who don't look like your typical offender and are respected in the community are classic examples of targeted drug mules.

"So certainly when we think about women and particularly older women or vulnerable women these might be people who are just going to not come across as interesting to people who are looking for drug smugglers," Noon said.

As for what makes particular people more vulnerable to falling into this situation, Noon puts it down to reliance on relationships to form identity and asense of belonging.

"What we know about human engagement is humans are very very inter-personally driven, we really need our inter-personal relationships to survive," she said.

"We really rely on our relationships to form our identity and our sense of belonging. So I think that people who perhaps are seeking that, they're searching for an identity and they're searching for a sense of belonging, are likely to be more vulnerable to people who are able to provide them."