C H I C A G O, Jan. 29, 2004 -- Customs inspectors and federal prosecutors say an international drug ring they uncovered was unlike any other they'd come across. It used babies to help them smuggle in the drugs.
The idea behind the scheme was to place the drugs in cans of baby formula being carried by women traveling with babies. The hope was that customs agents wouldn't search the women and drug-sniffing dogs wouldn't detect the drugs through the cans.
The baby-bearing smugglers flew around the world to bring more than 200 pounds of cocaine and 13 pounds of heroin back home to Chicago. The couriers were paid up to $4,000 a trip. Some also received drugs as payment.
"They were taking the milk out of the formula can, washing the can out and inserting with a hypodermic needle the liquid cocaine into the can, soldering the lid back on," said U.S. Customs agent Pete Darling.
Federal prosecutor Scott Levine said it didn't matter that the coke was watered down, because it would later be turned into crack anyway.
The joint investigation of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency and federal prosecutors began in 1999 and ended last week, when the last of the ring's organizers was sentenced to nine years in prison.
In the two years after the investigation began, 48 defendants pleaded guilty. While the couriers were sentenced to five to 10 years in prison, the parents who rented their babies received sentences that ranged between 10 months and eight years. Only one of the accused stood trial, and was eventually sentenced to life in prison.
Suspicious Custom Agent
The ring started to disintegrate in 1999 when a customs agent in Atlanta noticed that a number of women with babies were visiting family in the military in Panama, but they were not staying near the base. He also noticed that the women were from the same poor section of Chicago. Suspicious, he pulled one of the women aside, looked at her luggage and noticed that the weights of the formula cans did not match the weight indicated on the labels.An X-ray revealed that the can contained pellets of cocaine and heroin. When a similar arrest was made simultaneously in London, involving formula cans, Darling went to the South Side Chicago neighborhood where both women lived.
Darling discovered that the parents of the baby who was stopped in London were HIV-positive drug addicts. The pair told Darling a story he would hear again as the investigation continued.
They said a woman named Selina Johnson, who lived in their neighborhood, had asked to be their baby's godmother, promising free milk and clothes for the child.
The parents said they gave into the tempting offer and admitted renting their babies to be used as a decoy for drug smugglers, in exchange for money and drugs.
It was then that Darling realized the drug ring was much bigger than he had originally thought.
Ending the Ring
All told, 45 trips were made, and 22 babies were used to help transport the drugs, according to investigators. A dozen were "rented" babies, children whose parents were paid in drugs and money, 10 of the babies actually went with their own parents, who were the drug couriers themselves.
"I think a lot of the couriers and parents renting their babies were addicted to heroin and crack-cocaine, not able to work or function in society because of their addictions, therefore they were susceptible to the leaders of this organization who got them to be the couriers and to rent their parents," Darling said.
Levine said his team estimated that the dealers smuggled about 220 pounds of coke, which would sell for $2 million wholesale. If it were all turned into crack, which is what authorities suspect happened, the drugs would be worth $10 million on the street, he said.
Erica Howard, a courier who used her own son as a decoy, says she is grateful to the authorities for arresting her. she says getting caught helped her turn her life around.
"We were victims," Howard said. "You know, the guys used us to bring drugs back. You know, knowing that we were desperate mothers."
Elaine Austin, another courier who used her own baby as a decoy, says it's now hard for her to believe what she did for money.
"I was putting my life in danger. My children's lives in danger," Austin said. "I was just putting life in danger just because I wanted to make some money," she said.
To the best of Darling and Levine's knowledge none of the babies were seriously harmed while being used as a decoy, even though the infants were taking international trips with drug addicts who were not able to properly care for them.
"Fortunately none of the babies lost their lives, but the babies were in danger," Darling said.
Levine said some the babies were left alone while the couriers, who were often drug addicts themselves, settled the drug deals.