The methods they use to get drugs into the United States range from soup packets to suitcases to their own bodies. But many drug smugglers nabbed at local airports have at least one thing in common: They say they turned to the drug trade because of financial hardships.

In court papers, attorneys for drug couriers cite myriad economic woes that befell their clients, leading them to work as drug mules to recoup lost funds. A few of their stories:

» Yomade Aborishade, a 46-year-old Nigerian man, borrowed money to pay for his children to go to private school, his attorney wrote in a sentencing memo. Aborishade was also caring for his mother, a niece and nephew, and his disabled wife, and couldn't pay back the funds.

Penalties
» Most drug smugglers are charged in federal court with importing a controlled substance, which carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years in prison. But couriers sentenced locally in the past few years have received much lighter penalties, usually three to four years behind bars. That's because they meet a set of conditions that makes them eligible for sentences below the mandatory minimum: They don't have criminal histories; their crimes don't involve violence, weapons, death or serious injury; they don't have leadership roles; and they cooperate with prosecutors.

Aborishade said the only way he could pay the money back by swallowing heroin pellets and being a drug courier. After trying to stall the man who lent him money, Aborishade's attorney wrote, "he had been threatened and assaulted, and became resigned to the fact that he would not be able to repay the loan on his own."

He was arrested at Washington Dulles International Airport in March.

» Ebodor Okenwa, a 45-year-old Nigerian also caught at Dulles in March after having ingested dozens of heroin pellets, ran a trading company. He owed creditors and investors thousands of dollars after paying $40,000 for car parts that never arrived, his attorney wrote in court papers. An acquaintance connected him with a man who offered to pay Okenwa to be a drug courier.

"In his desperate financial state, Mr. Okenwa unfortunately agreed to the plan," his attorney wrote.

» Joao Henriques Borgas, a 26-year-old from Portugal, was arrested at Dulles last September after authorities found 17 packages of cocaine wrapped in shirts in his suitcase. He went to Buenos Aires to pick up the drugs to smuggle after his seafood market faltered amid competition from "large-scale supermarkets" and global economic troubles, and Borgas "could not make ends meet," according to a sentencing memo.