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Savior in the Shadows

A Catholic Priest’s Battle to Rescue ‘Drug Mules’

Father John Wotherspoon, a Catholic priest, has embarked on a courageous and perilous mission to provide an alternative path for drug traffickers from around the globe. These individuals, trapped in the clutches of the illegal drug trade due to financial destitution, now have a glimmer of hope thanks to the efforts of this devoted clergyman.

For the past decade, Father Wotherspoon has resided in a modest apartment in his adopted city of Hong Kong. Having migrated from Australia in 1985 with a heartfelt commitment to serving the impoverished, he has become a guiding light for countless drug traffickers who find themselves in the bustling metropolis. With boundless generosity, he offers them solace, legal aid, and a secure haven as they transition from prison to civilian life.

But his benevolence doesn’t stop there. Father Wotherspoon goes above and beyond, tirelessly connecting these individuals with their families and even supporting their children’s education. He fearlessly navigates the labyrinthine Hong Kong legal system on their behalf, ensuring they receive fair treatment. Moreover, he engages in a grueling battle against criminal elements, safeguarding these vulnerable drug mules from further exploitation.

His unwavering belief: with adequate resources and attention, such tragic circumstances can be prevented.

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To Father Wotherspoon, these victims are not mere statistics; they are human beings yearning for a second chance. He understands that the majority are lured into the drug trade by the false promise of easy money, driven by their desperate desire to support their impoverished families back home.

“Many of the drug mules have little information on the risk associated with the trade. While we do not have the death penalty in Hong Kong, many are facing a minimum stay 10 years in prison and the majority are youth, probably with an infant staying at home or perhaps elderly parents who need financial support,” the prison chaplain said.

Currently, Father Wotherspoon is embarking on a remarkable journey to 13 countries across Asia, Africa, and South America as part of his unwavering commitment to combat drug trafficking. Armed with his extensive network and connections, he aims to shine a spotlight on the dire plight of these drug mules. He seeks to secure funding for better airport technologies and launch public education campaigns, in an attempt to prevent others from falling victim to the same fate, and address an epidemic that has largely escaped public attention.

Earlier this month, Father Wotherspoon visited Addis Ababa to engage with various stakeholders, including the United Nations office, the European Union office, and members of the media.

“Bole International Airport here in Addis Ababa is one of the biggest arenas for drug mules, alongside Johannesburg and São Paulo airports. I hope to contribute ideas that will assist authorities in putting an end to this flow,” Father Wotherspoon shared with The Reporter.

He has even proposed a radical solution for airport security, suggesting that a private firm be entrusted with the task. This firm would enlist experienced staff from places like Hong Kong to guide and train local personnel, effectively tightening security measures. Furthermore, he recommends having more than one person operate sensitive x-ray machinery and implementing remote computer monitoring.

Sporting his signature dark commemorative bag from Pope Francis’ visit to Uganda in 2015, he carries notebooks and data files detailing information about each individual he is currently assisting. He willingly shares these with anyone who is willing to lend an ear to support his cause. To him, regular engagement is essential in shedding light on an issue that impacts far too many lives.

He is perplexed that Bole Airport lacks the necessary technology and sniffer dogs to prevent drug traffickers from leaving Ethiopia. He believes the lack of such measures only benefits the criminals who are profiting at the expense of others, particularly those in desperate need of financial independence. “Why are we opening the door for hard drugs to flow to other nations with little scrutiny and produce more victims,” he asks.

Last year, Father Wotherspoon offered assistance to a Canadian widow who had traveled from Barrie, Ontario to Addis Ababa, ostensibly in search of a romantic partner. She stayed in a small hotel, waiting for her boyfriend—a self-proclaimed United Nations doctor—who never showed up. He claimed he had to urgently fly to Hong Kong.

The woman spent about USD 150,000 in the bid to find a partner. And never doubting his intentions the unsuspecting woman received two suitcases from his alleged assistance and agreed to bring it to him.

Despite carrying a substantial quantity of drugs, the woman encountered no issues at Bole Airport. However, she was apprehended in Hong Kong. The clergyman was the first person to meet her, witnessing her shattered spirit and the bleak future she faced, much like many other prisoners caught in similar circumstances.

With his unwavering support and a visit to Addis Ababa to testify about her journey, the 65-year old woman was eventually released.

Father Wotherspoon recognizes that she is one of the fortunate few, the exception rather than the norm. It is this realization that compels him to dedicate his life to helping others find freedom and embrace a productive lifestyle.

According to him, many drug mules are coerced into ingesting drugs concealed in small plastic bags. During their flight to Hong Kong, they are instructed to refrain from eating or drinking excessively, resulting in a pale complexion upon arrival, making them easy targets for authorities.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has reported a concerning trend at Bole Airport. Out of 156 drug seizures recorded in Brazil last year, 64 were destined for or transiting through Ethiopia. This surge in drug-related incidents has created a pressing need for improved security measures at Bole Airport, which currently relies on outdated technology and is vulnerable to corruption.

Father Wotherspoon, who serves as a prison chaplain, has personally come to know many of the drug mules arriving in Hong Kong. The victims caught in Hong Kong are predominantly African and South American nationals, with occasional traffickers hailing from Europe, India, and North America, he says. These criminals exploit Addis Ababa Bole Airport as a hub, often utilizing Ethiopian Airlines for transportation, while the masterminds behind the operations are frequently traced back to Nigeria.

To address this critical issue, Father John advocates for enhanced security strategies that would benefit not only the victims but also individuals traveling to countries like China, where severe penalties, including capital punishment, are still imposed for drug-related offenses.

For instance, Nazrawit Abera, a young Ethiopian woman, was apprehended in Beijing in 2019 for allegedly transporting cocaine hidden in shampoo bottles. Despite public pressure and promises from the Ethiopian government, her fate remains uncertain, as she continues to be held in Chinese custody.

In response to such incidents, the Chinese embassy in Addis Ababa has begun distributing warning cards to travelers, highlighting the risks associated with drug transportation to China.

Last year, over 200 Nigerian prisoners, as reported by the International Center for Investigative Reporting, lodged a request with the Nigerian government to facilitate their transfer from the harsh and overcrowded Addis Ababa Kality prison to Nigerian prisons. These prisoners cite gross human rights violations, inadequate infrastructure, and protracted court proceedings as the primary reasons for their appeal.

The Brazilian Embassy in Addis Ababa, which provides financial support and makes regular visits to their imprisoned citizens in Ethiopia, also joined in the plea. This development comes in the wake of an increasing number of Brazilians detained and convicted for drug-related offenses within Ethiopian territory.

In the last two years, an expecting Brazilian mother and two others were handed a 10-year prison sentence in their alleged involvement in the narcotics trade among many.

Father Wotherspoon remains steadfast in his commitment to fighting against drug trafficking, even when the odds seem insurmountable.

Looking to the future, he says: “My life is about helping. It will be fulfilled when drug trafficking is history, and drug mules are no longer victims. That is the prize I’m looking for.”

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