Meet the dead droppers – reckless pawns in Russia’s drug war who last just weeks on the streets
Petr says police got him before he finished his first dead drop. His story isn’t rare: among Russia’s ‘dead droppers’, the couriers trying to get rich quick by hiding drugs in caches, those who make it to 6 months are called vets.
It’s October 2017, and Petr is a 19-year-old second-year language student in Izhevsk, the home of the Kalashnikov rifle, from a middle class family. Two years later, his mother, an economist, will show RT his untouched room inside the family apartment – Russian New Wave posters on the wall, PC on his desk, barbells on the floor.
To become an independent adult, Petr needs money. He has a girlfriend now, together they want to rent a place of their own. Job offers he gets after posting his resume online offer $200 a month max for full-time work as a freight handler or on a building site. KFC already rejected his application.
All over town there are stencils on walls that read “90,000 [$1400] per week/300-1000 roubles per delivery [$5-16]. Will help with accommodation.” Below are online contact details.
An internet forum. It looks no different to a Taylor Swift fansite or football club message board, but every post topic is illegal goods sold anonymously, and the ad banners are for spice – synthetic marijuana – speed, and bath salts. This is the darknet – a little harder to get to, but for a computer-literate teenager with big plans, installing the anonymizing Tor browser is a cinch.
In the sub-forum called 'Jobs' dealers are recruiting – they always are. No hard sell, but they say from behind the screen that the spice they deal in is legal (it hasn’t been since 2015) and that anyone caught first-time even with hard drugs will only receive a suspended sentence (not true either). The work is simple and part-time, the clean ones make the best droppers.
“They said that they are not creating drug addicts, just responding to an existing demand. I made a deal with my conscience there and then. I would not be the executioner, just the man who sharpens the axe,” Petr says, from the laundry room of the jail 60km (37 miles) outside Izhevsk, where he has been assigned.
Petr sends off a photo of his passport, insurance to the dealers he won’t make off with the merchandise. From then on, all communication is through encrypted messengers on throwaway phones.
The dead dropper receives his goods through a dead drop himself, so the supply chain is never compromised. Petr’s is thrown into a flower bed outside his house: a scotched-up package the size of a tennis ball.
Petr opens it at home. Inside, a large packet of powder and a detailed printed manual of which scales and baggies to buy, how to weigh and sort the goods, what to do if the police stops him on a mission, how to avoid leaving fingerprints, and most importantly, how to recognize a suitable location for a dead drop.
A spot that is easy to get to and identify, which the right person can find in seconds but the wrong person never will. The wrong person can be a civilian, a janitor, a cop, or a “seagull” – a penniless junkie who searches usual hiding places for packages not meant for him. Just as he will never meet his boss face to face, Petr will not know the identity of the buyer. Instead, the dead dropper will photograph the spot and send a message with the coordinates, which his distributor will pass on to the customer, who can retrieve the goods at leisure, after transferring the money through a pay terminal or with cryptocurrency.
Find the cache, put away the stuff, take the pic, don’t draw attention, get out fast. It sounds simple, but there is an art to it, or at least a situational intuition. The dead droppers call themselves “miners” or “treasure men,” romanticize their job. Petr has read that the best ones can get $10,000 a month, and talk of saving up to open their legal shop or gym or car repair business, but the skill is getting out in time.
Petr has weighed the "off-white substance" and packaged it into twenty separate plastic bags, then foil and tape so that it doesn’t perish if it rains.
He takes public transport to Metallurg, an industrial suburb on the western side of town, by the artificial lake. He walks into the courtyard underneath the high-rise apartment blocks, stuffs the packages into flower beds, and other crevices in the concrete, starts taking photos on his mobile.
Then it happens. Not a cop, not a gang of seagulls on a comedown, but a “concerned citizen.”
The furious man bursts out of the communal entrance, attacks Petr, twists his arms behind his back, grabs his phone and holds him underfoot as he calls the police.
“I probably wasn’t the first dead dropper he saw out of his window,” says Petr, as he replays the day in his head for the thousandth time.
In many neighborhoods across Russia, not just Moscow and St.Petersburg, but mid-sized cities like Izhevsk, residents report the nuisance of young men furtively loitering outside, followed by hours later, another wave of wanderers rummaging through dirt and snow, sticking their hands up drain pipes, light spots from electric torches scanning the ground in the middle of the night.
Petr sits inside the police station in handcuffs. Soon he will read Article 228.1 of the Russian Criminal Code for the first time, which will show that the standard tariff for physical distribution of drugs is four to eight years. His mother says that his girlfriend never calls again, though the humiliation of meeting his parents through the prison bars blacks out other concerns.
His career as a dropper was a dismal failure, but here it serves Petr well. He confesses straight away, police believe his story, take into account his age and background references, and he gets two and a half years. Petr is due out in the spring of 2020. The average punishment for the same offense for those sharing his cell at penal colony IK-5 is seven years.
75,000 people were sentenced under Article 228 in Russia last year, and about a quarter of the country’s 470,000 strong convict population are serving drug-related terms. A substantial number of those are treasure men, as it becomes a prevalent form of retail drug dealing in the former Soviet Union.
A social debate rages in the media and between government agencies about how well the war on drugs is going, whether the punishments should be liberalized or strengthened, if it is right that so many street pushers and users are in jail, while the traffickers and wholesalers can get away scot-free for years, or to what extent economic and social deprivation in certain regions goes hand in hand with the proliferation of drugs.Also on rt.com Dark-web drugs: New strategy needed as dealers swap the street for cyberspace
But within that discussion, whether you view the dead droppers as opportunist poison merchants or naive victims there is one consensus – they are the “expendable material,” the bottom-feeding fish, barely a step above the most lost cause heroin addicts they supply.
However great the obstacles to wealth in their hometowns, dead dropping is futile carnage, an industrial meat factory that takes in the foolish and desperate at one end, and outputs a conveyor line of uniformed convicts at the other.
“The police these days are on the same sites as the dealers, they use the same tech, they monitor and hack all the same conversations,” says anti-drug activist Dmitry Nosov.
“We estimate that 95 percent of all street couriers are caught within the first two months.”
By Igor Ogorodnev
Igor Ogorodnev is a Russian-British journalist, who has worked at RT since 2007 as a correspondent, editor and writer.
Gratitude to RT Russian's Aleksey Boyarskiy for material contribution. 'Petr's' real name has been withheld at the interviewee's request.