A 77-year-old Dresden man convicted of drug trafficking in Spain was the subject of a Feb. 10 U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging hearing about a new scam that is turning unsuspecting seniors into drug mules.
Committee Chairman Susan Collins, R-Maine, and eight other senators on the committee are now asking Secretary of State John Kerry to work with foreign governments to investigate the cases of Americans who have fallen victim to the scam.
In a March 4 letter, senators urged Kerry or the U.S. ambassador to Spain to raise Joseph Bryon Martin’s case to the Spanish government. Martin is serving a six-year prison sentence in Madrid for smuggling about 1.4 kilograms of cocaine into Spain.
According to son Andy Martin, who testified at the Feb. 10 hearing, his father, a retired pastor, thought he was delivering real-estate papers to a woman he had a long-standing online relationship with.
The Department of State could not be reached for a response by press time. Collins’ office has also not yet received a response, but is expecting one in the near future, a spokesperson said.
The Feb. 10 hearing was the first time federal law enforcement officials spoke publicly about the “romance scam,” a new scheme employed by criminal syndicates to trick unsuspecting seniors into transporting illegal narcotics across international borders.
Scammers meet seniors online and shower them with affection. Once trust is established, the senior is asked to travel internationally for what may seem like plausible reasons to the senior, Collins said during the Feb. 10 hearing.
Key features of the scam involve the criminals covering travel expenses and arranging a complicated travel itinerary, which involves travel through several countries and extended layovers, Collins said.
Seniors are contacted during the extended layover and asked to carry a package for the scammer on the next leg of their trip, Collins said. Unbeknownst to the senior, the package contains drugs.
Martin met a woman online shortly after he moved in with his daughter in Dresden, Andy Martin testified. For five years, Martin and the woman, who identified herself as “Joy,” had an online romance.
Joy showered Martin with affection; Martin sent her money every month, despite not being able to pay rent to his daughter, Andy Martin said. After his father remarried and tried to break off the relationship with Joy, he was asked to transport real-estate papers to the U.K. for her via Peru.
“Joy offered to pay Dad a significant amount of money if he would go to South America and bring the papers to her in London,” Andy Martin said. “Broke and wanting to recover the money he had sent Joy over the years, Dad decided to keep his promise.”
At least 145 victims have been arrested by foreign governments for unknowingly smuggling drugs, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement; 30 of those victims, many of them seniors, are currently held overseas.
“ICE’s investigation has revealed that these senior Americans are likely victims of international criminal enterprises who are being further victimized by their imprisonment,” senators wrote.
Senators are urging the Department of State to work with Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials and foreign governments to examine the cases of seniors who may have fallen victim to the scam.
“The United States has a partnership with many of these nations, and given the support and assistance we have provided these allies in the past, we think it is warranted to ask these nations to take a fuller look at the circumstances around these particular cases,” senators wrote.
Martin’s six-year sentence is likely a life sentence due to his failing health, Andy Martin said.
“We would like to see more action taken to expedite the process and return these seniors to their homes,” senators wrote.