February 20, 2006 12:00 PM

Just outside the Colombian city of Medellín, Caira, a year-and-a-half-old basset hound, lives the life of a typical farm dog: She sleeps in her own wooden shelter, snacks on bone-shaped biscuits and pretty much stays out of the way of the horses, cows and pigs. “She’s lazy—she doesn’t help with the cattle, she doesn’t do anything, she doesn’t even bark loudly,” says her caretaker. “But she really loves playing with kids and getting tickled on her stomach.”

After what she’s been through, Caira deserves to take it easy. According to indictments unsealed Feb. 1 in U.S. federal court in Brooklyn, the gentle hound was one of 10 puppies rescued last January when the Colombian Antinarcotics Bureau busted an alleged smuggling operation in Medellín. There, in a dirty makeshift veterinary clinic, the agents found evidence of a gruesome scheme: Drug dealers had apparently sliced open the dogs’ bellies and surgically implanted plastic bags of liquid heroin. Their plan, say U.S. prosecutors, was to pass off the pups as show dogs and use them as “mules” to smuggle the drugs to the east coast of the U.S. (see box above).

When it comes to villainous acts, Colombian drug gangs set a notoriously high bar. But this one incensed even battle-hardened narcs. “I was absolutely disgusted,” says special agent John Gilbride, chief of the DEA’s New York City field office, who led the two-year sting that netted 22 suspects in the United States and Colombia. “Slicing open a helpless little puppy is a new low. And if they’d reached New York, you can pretty much imagine they’d have been just sliced open again and left to die.”

Caira was one of the lucky ones. Although she was one of the six dogs that Gilbride says had undergone the crude surgery before agents, acting on a tip, swooped in to make the bust, she survived. Three dogs later died from infections; Caira and the others were adopted by Colombian police officers or their relatives and are thriving. The drugs, of course, were confiscated. As for the man who allegedly put the pups under the knife, identified in some press accounts as Andres Lopez Elorez, he is still at large. “As far as I know, he is a bona fide veterinarian who was hired by the drug organization,” says Gilbride. “We have information that he’s possibly in Spain.”

Famously inventive, Colombian drug smugglers have used animals in the past. In 1993, for instance, U.S. authorities confiscated 80 lbs. of cocaine from the guts of roughly 300 boa constrictors. In December 1994, an English sheepdog fresh off a flight from Colombia was stopped at New York City’s John F. Kennedy International Airport. “The poor thing had 10 condoms as big as oranges, all filled with cocaine, sewn into her stomach,” recalls Janet Rapaport of U.S. Customs Service. “We named her Cokey for obvious reasons. She was eventually adopted by one of our agents and lived a long, happy life.”

Now, fortunately, Caira has a chance to do the same. And if she’s not exactly a workaholic down on the farm, she shows her appreciation in other ways. “Every time we play with her, she licks our faces, gives us kisses,” says her caretaker (who didn’t want to be identified because of security concerns). “She’s very tender and loving.”

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