Delivery Apps Are Turning Gig Workers Into Drug Mules in Argentina

There, they can be hired to transport anything — including illegal drugs — and poorly enforced laws leave them responsible

Illustration: Olivia Fields

WWhen Javier Rojas’ phone buzzed with an order for a packet of tablets this past July, nothing seemed amiss at first. In Argentina, delivery apps Glovo and Rappi allow users to send and receive all kinds of things, and couriers like Rojas are accustomed to delivering takeaways, documents, and forgotten keys across the city. But when they say you can order anything, that —in practice—can really mean anything, as Rojas would find out.

The address was a regular house, but alarm bells rang as soon as he saw the package. It was supposed to be a box of Berocca vitamin supplements, but the box was battered and old, and he could feel there were no tablets inside. It also reeked of cannabis.

He stopped his motorbike five blocks away and messaged Glovo support to ask what he should do. At first, they asked how he knew what he was carrying. When he told them he’d opened it, the support desk called him and told him to take the box back to the dealer. “I was like, am I going to say to him, ‘Hey, mate, here’s your weed — I’m not delivering it for you’?” he says. “He’s gonna shoot me. He’s gonna cut me up. Do you realize what you’re exposing me to?”

After that, they suggested he just deliver it. Rojas wasn’t keen on that either. “For all I know, it’s a trap,” he says. “I deliver it to the person, and there are two police officers waiting. It’s me that bears the responsibility, not the company. The company washes its hands of it.”

After more than an hour of refusing to deliver or return the drugs, the company finally allowed him to throw the box away. “The funniest bit was the next day, I got another order from the same place.” He rejected it.

Rojas’ story is far from an isolated case according to Gonzalo Ottaviano, an auditor at Argentine couriers’ union ASIMM who specializes in these cases. The first reports emerged in 2018. There have been around 10 cases so far, virtually all using the Glovo app’s “Anything” category.

Most Buenos Aires delivery workers are migrants, and many hail from Venezuela. Getting caught with drugs by the police would have particularly serious consequences for them.

Couriers like Rojas are in a difficult position. On one hand, the system provides incentives to accept as many orders as possible; workers are worried their ratings and compensation will deteriorate if they reject too many. They aren’t meant to open orders and look inside. Sometimes, it’s easiest not to ask too many questions.

On the other hand, they’re painfully aware that if they were caught by the police, justly or otherwise, the buck would stop with them. “You try explaining to the police that it’s not yours,” says a cycle courier who is going by the name Lucía because she is concerned the company might lock her account for speaking out. “You’re the one who’s going to end up in prison, and the person who sent it won’t face any consequences whatsoever.”

Most Buenos Aires delivery workers are migrants, and many hail from Venezuela, where the economy has collapsed. Getting caught with drugs by the police would have particularly serious consequences for them: Immigration requires migrants to submit police records to apply for residency.

On Glovo, it’s easy for customers to make themselves hard to trace. To create an account, you need only a first name, email address, and password. Selecting the “Anything” category allows you to enter the pickup and dropoff points yourself. It doesn’t have to be a business formally registered with Glovo. In fact, it can be anywhere: a doorway, a street corner, or even a car. The closest users come to submitting traceable information is giving a mobile number that’s verified with a text code. In theory, all Argentine cellphone lines have to be registered with a user, but in practice, dealers either find ways around this or simply don’t care.

Rojas isn’t the only courier who was less than impressed with Glovo’s response. In screenshots of a text conversation in another case, a courier told the support team he received an order for a small box worth 1,800 Argentine pesos (equivalent to $44 U.S. at the time) from someone standing in the street. In a strange feat of circular logic, the support worker responded that he should accept the delivery because the client had previous deliveries from that address. There are photos of what happened next: The courier opened the box, which was supposed to be tattoo aftercare cream. Instead, he found a wrap of white powder.

“We understand that Glovo isn’t a branch of drugs trafficking, but it does facilitate it,” auditor Ottaviano says. “If someone wants to do something illicit, this is the ideal tool.”

In a statement, Glovo told OneZero that the use of its platform to transport illicit substances is strictly prohibited. “Where couriers have any reason to suspect that illegal items are being sent through our system, we require them to report their concerns as a matter of urgency,” the company said. “Where we have any suspicion that our system is being used for the transport and delivery of illegal items, we work in close collaboration with the police and local authorities, providing all user account information and relevant data, to assist their investigations.”

“With how things work in this country, if you report it, it’s far more likely that something will happen to you than to the person taking the drugs.”

Not everyone feels safe reporting, though. Lucía is sure she was made to deliver drugs once but didn’t check the package or report it because she thought it might put her at risk. An order arrived under Glovo’s “Anything” category, supposedly to deliver a key. When the client handed the package over, there was a key inside, but there was something else inside, too, indistinguishable through the wrapping. Unlike most deliveries of forgotten keys, the recipient had paid for the package as well as the delivery charge. “I preferred to deliver the order and keep quiet,” she says.

Did she feel safe? “You don’t feel safe doing any kind of delivery work. The risk is always there. That you’ll be robbed, that someone will steal your bike, that you’ll be run over by a car,” she says. “With how things work in this country, if you report it, it’s far more likely that something will happen to you than to the person taking the drugs.”

As a female courier, she also has other worries. When she worked for the app PedidosYa, customers would send her deep inside unknown apartment blocks on her own. The pay was low, and she made 300–500 pesos ($5 to $8) in a four-hour shift. It can be hungry work, but couriers can’t afford street food, and there’s no time to go home and cook. She says colleagues of hers in their early twenties have herniated discs because of the toll the work takes on their bodies. And every month, more couriers suffer accidents, and some workers have died on the roads.

Lucía is looking for other work, but opportunities are scarce. Argentina is experiencing a deep financial crisis, with unemployment at 10.6%. Inflation is above 50% and pay is falling far behind, plunging many into poverty. In times like these, ordinary people are forced to take work they wouldn’t otherwise accept just to make ends meet.

Rojas is in the same boat. He can work longer hours because he has a motorbike. If he really pushes 10 hours a day, seven days a week, he can make 10,000–15,000 pesos ($170 to $250) in two weeks. His earnings help his younger brother and his mother, who is in poor health. “The way things are now, it’s the only way of going out and working and bringing a plate of food home,” he says. “You’re gathering crumbs just to survive.”

Both are angry that the apps are being used to send drugs. “If you personally want to do drugs, that’s one thing, but I shouldn’t have to risk my personal and economic integrity because of other people’s vices,” Lucía says.

At first, a March 2018 ruling seemed to offer a solution. ASIMM reported delivery app companies, including Glovo and Rappi, to the authorities, alleging that their services were effectively postal and messaging work and that, as such, they should be signed up to Argentina’s national register of postal service providers. That would mean the law recognized that it’s couriers’ jobs to carry closed packages for other people without knowing what’s inside, which would offer them the same legal protection as postal workers.

Argentina’s National Entity of Communications agreed, stating that although the app-based nature of the platforms meant these constituted “new ways of sending postal deliveries,” the companies should still sign up to the code.

Unfortunately for the couriers, Ottaviano says, that order was never enforced. The broader argument over how delivery apps (and ride apps like Uber) should be regulated in Argentina has descended into a complex legal wrangle about whether workers should be classified as employees and what legislation should apply to the companies. In August, a judge ordered the suspension of Glovo, Rappi, and PedidosYa, but the companies immediately appealed and then ignored the suspension.

Until an agreement is reached, the couriers themselves are in legal limbo, left to choose between risking their personal safety and putting food on the table. “Those are the rules of their game,” Rojas says. “You wanna work, you wanna earn okay-ish money? Be my slave. If you want to keep starving, keep demanding your rights.”

Hi! I write about social issues in South America and study politics. Bylines: The Guardian, The Independent, Vice, New Internationalist and others.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store