Hundreds of British drug couriers have been recruited for overseas smuggling operations by West African gangs operating from Britain.

Impressionable young people - often single mothers - are being tempted to risk the death penalty for $32,000 per trip.A pattern of well-organized and targeted recruitment has emerged in cases in which gang bosses have received long sentences for smuggling.

British Customs officials reckon that around 150 British couriers are currently shifting drugs around the world.

In one recent case, ringleader Akinwumni Odesanya was jailed for 16 years after Customs officers foiled a plan to flood Southeast London with more than $32 million of cocaine. The court heard that Odesanya's gang used teenage girls as couriers to ship the cocaine from Sao Paulo, Brazil, into London's Heathrow airport while they posed as vacationers. Two 19-year-olds were each jailed for four years.

Customs officers have caught and prosecuted a number of West African gangs based in Britain who have been using dozens of British couriers.

According to Customs investigators, the gangs operate a multimillion-dollar business, paying up to $32,000 a trip to couriers specially recruited by "talent spotters."

The gangs use British couriers because they believe that British passport holders are less likely to be stopped by customs officials.

"I think that the British public may have thought that some teenagers caught smuggling drugs in a number of countries were innocent dupes," said senior Customs officer Ranald Macdonald. "But what we are finding is a well organized network of international drug smuggling with duplicate passports, and airline tickets used to disguise travel itineraries."

The couriers make a tidy sum per trip, but the gangs are making colossal amounts. One gang is believed to have shifted drugs worth more than $72 million at street prices. Recruiters, mainly white men and women hired by the gangs, trawl pubs and clubs looking for people such as young single mothers who may be tempted by big money for just one trip.