BOARDING PASS – The body packers of Iran

Presented at the last Warsaw Film Festival, BOARDING PASS by the Iranian director Mehdi Rahmani is an unusual film in the prosperous and highly appreciated Iranian film world. An involving and smooth-flowing plot on a subject that is rarely touched upon by other Iranian directors. The scourge of drug trafficking and consumption in a country with one of the youngest populations in the world.

Mansour and Neda never use their boarding pass, nor take off from Teheran airport. Mansour, they would recognize immediately, with his stooped posture and bruised face. Neda is not a professional. She is not a mule by profession, one of the many couriers who flood the world with narcotic substances.

“Cancel your flight, they’ll nab us […] look at your face, you’re white, you’re leaking it […], if they notice, we’ll end up in prison and be sentenced to death.”

The lives of Nabi and Masour crossed in a nursery outside the capital where they were swallowing plastic packets of drugs.

“They’re not Chinese? I hope not, they break…” (Masour)

“No, German, Schneider.” (the dealer)

“Do me a favour, speak with Zarrabi, get him to send me to Australia.”

“They pay well in Australia, but the airport is dangerous.”

“No, I don’t want to go there for work.”

“No, I won’t speak about it with him, it’s difficult to get a visa for Australia. Why should I do it?”

“Speak with him and I’ll give you 30% from this trip.”

Maybe that 30% would be enough to assure Masour a new life, far from Teheran, from the miserable hovel that he shares with a cat and the impossibility to get back a woman who is too demanding.

“There are 23, I’ll get some more if you want.” (the dealer)

Masour is good at his job, an expert.

With Neda, it’s another story. Sipping water, continuously… useless. They don’t go down easily, the latex bags. And then she has got to go to the toilet a lot. But she should avoid going to the toilet with what she has got inside your body. 300 dollars, passport, hand luggage. A last goodbye to Bardiya, her beloved child who her ex-husband wants to take away.

 “[…] I need the money to pay a trafficker […] to get away, to Turkey, to be protected by the United Nations and then to another country”, she will tell Masour some hours later. The last hours of her life.

For the criminal network, there is always a trade to be fed, desperate lives to make money from, women to trick, men to exploit. Bodies on which to sharpen the claws of a greed without any scruples.

Neda and Masour are body packers. The name given to drug couriers who use their bodies like a bag, to fill up on departure and empty on arrival. They are able to fill the intimate parts of their body with up to a kilo of drugs in tiny plastic packets, usually condoms, tiny balloons, latex bags. On an average, each packer can cram in up to 100 packets of eight to ten grams each. If the packet breaks, death is almost a given. And it doesn’t always depend on the bad quality of the packets, a stomach movement or the absorbing of the chemical found in the tape that binds the bags can be fatal. Dilated pupils, difficulty in breathing, a perforated intestine, a heart attack.

And this is what happens to Neda whose body is full of the deadly poison. Masour is furious, if she had only given up at the beginning before leaving, he would have continued…, if only she had listened to him… but now it is too late, everything is jeopardized, Neda’s life, Zarrabi’s reaction when he discovers that his couriers have never left and there is a lot of his stuff in their bodies…

A desperate wandering from place to place, aimlessly, against time, around the dark and dangerous streets of night-time Teheran, at the mercy of men with no scruples, ex-traffickers, ex-friends, looking for a doctor to help them, because Neda needs an operation code, as soon as possible. Dirty work always requires money. And Masour doesn’t have any. Feverish hours, between life and death for both of them, Neda’s for sure and Masour’s in all probability, if Zabbiri’s men get to him. There will be no reasoning as these are people who only think about their money.

“Do you remember those two girls that disappeared? They found their bodies, cut open […]  Zarrabi butchered them alive to get his precious stuff […] leave it be, she has a family, a friend […].”

They go to the only person who can help, Tala, an old friend of Masour’s. A prostitute who in a few days will become a man. He could leave her, abandon Neda to her destiny, with her infected body. But he can’t, not now that he has learnt about her little Bardiya, about the husband that wants to take the child away.

In 2015, according to the Directorate-General of the Iranian Office for Legal Medicine, 1,762 packers died due to packets of drugs breaking open in their bodies. The main victims are women and children.

With a border of more than 900 kilometers shared with Afghanistan, the world’s leader in opium production (about two-thirds of the total market), Iran is the first link in a lucrative and deadly chain of death that from “Oppistan” passes through the Balkan Route, a corridor that crosses through Turkey, Greece, Serbia, Hungary and finally arriving in Western Europe with a turnover of 20 billion dollars.

A third of the heroin produced in Afghanistan passes along this route. The remainder for Europe passes through the Northern Route via Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan or, alternatively, via Uzbekistan and Turkmenistanfor the Russian market. Despite in recent years the Southern Route, which from Pakistan via Iran reaches the Gulf countries and Africa (especially the eastern part), having become very important, the so-called Balkan route still remains the main route for world opiate trafficking.

For decades Iran has fought a lone battle against the drug trade, developing one of the most effective means to combat the trade in narcotics – a religious crusade for the purity of the most influential Islamic theocracy in the world. A successful crusade with 74% of the opium and 25% of the heroin seized by the Iranian anti-drug task force. Eight and three times more, respectively, than all the other countries together (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime – World Drug Report 2015).

So much as to place the Islamic Republic second (after China) in the world ranking of countries with the highest rate of capital punishment. 65% of death sentences is for drug trafficking crimes (and often consumption). Notwithstanding this, and as well the amount of money invested in policing the borders, (more than 30,000 men and 700 million dollars), Iran did not win its battle, confirming itself to be the main destination of Afghan drugs.

It is not only a problem of transit, but also internal consumption. Alarming figures, denied by the political authorities. According to official sources, there could be three million heroin and opium addicts, with more than one million slaves to crystal heroin, the notorious Shisheh (‘glass’). We are speaking of one of the highest drug addiction rates in the world.

In 2015, the UNODC approved a five-year aid program of 20 million dollars. A compensation for the decision of many European governments to suspend financial aid to Iran in its actions against narcotic trafficking because of the escalation in the death penalties linked to the drug trade.

Slumped over on the back seat of a bus travelling through the black night, Neda’s life comes to an end. Slowly, inevitably, after having furtively seen for the last time her little Bardiya.

A packed body in the hostile Teheran night.

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