NICE, France — They must be the two youngest—and most adorable—drug mules in the world, and when they grow up they’ll be able to see the photos of themselves splashed on the front pages of Wednesday’s tabloid newspaper Nice-Matin: “Baby Connection,” proclaims the headline. You know, like “The French Connection.”
They’ll read the story of how they were used as accessories in a family scheme to smuggle almost 5 kilos of cocaine hidden in diapers in suitcases their family packed for a series of flights beginning in Guyana, continuing on through Brazil, Lisbon, Rome, and finally ending at Nice International Airport.
For now, Laticha, 4, and Roy, 3, are in foster care, after being abandoned just outside the Nice train station on February 25, apparently by their 70-year-old grandfather after an international cocaine smuggling attempt by the family went awry.
They were spotted looking “lost and disoriented” just outside the station by a homeless man who called the police and stayed with them until officers arrived at the scene, Nice police said.
The kids spoke almost no French but communicated in Dutch. They appeared to have been well cared for and were nicely dressed when police got there. Roy sported a little stud earring in his right ear and they both carried little backpacks with little more inside than a couple of jars of jam.
Detectives were baffled after five days passed and no one came to pick them up or reported them missing. So police went public with an appeal for information.
It turned out that Laticha’s mother, Vanessa Bergmans, 44, a Surinamese national who is also the grandmother of Roy, born 11 months after Laticha, had been sent to prison February 27 after being sentenced in Nice to four years and a €194,000 ($215,000) fine.
The detective in charge of Bergmans’s case saw a picture of the kids in a newspaper and connected the dots. Bergmans, who barely speaks French, was shown the photo and confirmed she was Laticha’s mother and Roy’s grandmother. Roy’s mother is believed to be in Suriname.
“Using little kids like that in an attempt to smuggle drugs is not only reprehensible, it also puts them in real danger,” said Laurie Duca of the Nice prosecutor’s office.
The story is a sad and complicated variation on the hard-core drug smuggling to the south of France that took place in the 1960s and ’70s and was dramatized in the 1971 film The French Connection. But whereas those gangsters were old pros, these seem to have been, at best, luckless amateurs.
Bergmans, an unmarried mother of eight children by two different fathers, had been living on welfare in Troyes, France, for a year with most of her kids. She apparently made two trips back to Suriname in January. The first was a test run in which, police say, she stuffed chocolate powder in diapers and put them in suitcases on a flight back to France to see if her plan would work. Then in late January she returned to Suriname with her father and Laticha and Roy, ostensibly for her brother’s funeral. For the flight back, she allegedly packed cocaine into the diapers.
“The diapers were a size 5, madame,” Bergmans’s lawyer, Slim Ayachi, told The Daily Beast on Wednesday at his vast office in central Nice. “Do you know why? They were that large size because the kids were so big, aged 4 and 3. The diapers had to be big so it would make sense if anyone opened the suitcases and had any questions.”
Because there were delays in the flights from Guyana to Europe, Bergmans’s coke-filled suitcases were not on the same plane with her, her father, and the two kids when they arrived in Nice on February 21.
Instead, according to police, the family took two hotel rooms in a seedy area near the Nice train station to wait for the luggage to arrive. Bergmans left the hotel to go to the airport at 10 a.m. on Feb. 23 to pick up the bags and was arrested shortly after she got to the airport. Customs officials had already discovered the cocaine-filled diapers in the suitcases.
Two days later, the kids were spotted at the train station and placed in care while police tried to figure out the mystery behind their abandonment and finally alerted the local media.
Bergmans had thought that her father had been taking care of the kids after she was arrested and had no idea they had been dumped at the train station. Five of her other kids were discovered at home alone at Bergmans’s apartment in Troyes, and all were placed in temporary care. The oldest at home was only 14, police said.
Ayachi said his client is “typical” of a female drug mule. “She is not someone who’s won the lottery in life,” he said. “She is fragile, uneducated, with very little money. She is ashamed and upset about what has happened and is very worried about her children.”
Ayachi said a local woman back in Suriname offered Bergmans the opportunity to smuggle the cocaine in exchange for €5,000 ($5,500) that she said she would send her by wire transfer after the drugs got to France. Ayachi said his client decided later she would not accept the money and he told The Daily Beast she does not have it. He said he had checked her bank account but admitted he does not know for sure if Bergmans did or did not receive the money.
The big question that remains is why Bergmans’s father left the kids at the train station, and where he is now.
Ayachi said his client does not believe her father abandoned the kids, although all evidence so far points to that. Bergmans said her father is sick with prostate cancer, and hypertension, and has problems with urinary evacuation. She told Ayachi she is worried he could have had an “accident” or be wandering around ill.
The police in Nice doubt that.
“We think he figured out she’d been arrested and he’d be next,” said one detective. “So he just took off.”