CHICAGO – A U.S. judge sentenced a longtime fugitive to nine years in prison Thursday for leading what was one of the world’s largest heroin networks, extending from suppliers in Thailand to distributors working out of a boutique in Chicago.
The sentencing of Musiliu Balogun highlights a seismic shift in how heroin gets to the U.S.. In the 1990s, when Balogun was in his heyday as a drug trafficker, most of the heroin originated from Southeast Asia and got to the United States through couriers. Now, most of it is smuggled across the southern border by Mexican cartels.
The hub of the network Balogun oversaw was the Women’s Affair Boutique, a clothing store on Chicago’s North Side. Balogun lived in a $2,400 Bangkok apartment while other traffickers “worked for peanuts,” one suspect complained, according to court documents.
Standing in the Chicago court Thursday with his legs shackled, the 53-year-old Nigerian fumbled with a folder in his hands and repeatedly bowed to U.S. District Judge James Holderman during a brief statement.
“I sincerely apologize for all the pain I have caused,” the native Yoruba speaker said in a soft voice. Once nicknamed “the policeman” for the discipline he imposed on subordinate traffickers, Balogun added in court, “I’ve learned a lot and I’m a changed person now.”
In imposing sentence, Holderman said the harm caused by the trafficking drugs into the U.S. “has been momentous.”
Statistics suggest heroin use in the U.S. has soared. Numbers of people who said they used heroin in the past year rose by 66 percent from 2007 and 2011, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reports.
While Balogun trafficked pricey Asian heroin injected with a needle, today’s Mexican- and Colombian-made heroin is more potent but cheaper and easier to ingest in its powdery form, said Jack Riley, the Drug Enforcement Administration’s head in Chicago.
“What’s scary is we thought we had heroin licked. And look where we are now,” said Riley, who as a young agent in the mid-’90s worked on the investigation that eventually brought down Balogun’s network.
For at least some Mexican cartels, heroin trafficked to the U.S. is now their No. 1 money maker, Riley said. While the majority of heroin in the United States comes in via Mexico, Asian heroin and heroin from Afghanistan still makes up the bulk of supply to Europe, China and Russia, Riley said.
Balogun, of Ogun, Nigeria, initially faced a life sentence, but a plea deal in June following his extradition from Holland meant the maximum was just nine years. Defense lawyer Raymond Wigell said his client could be out of prison in as little as 2 ½ years with time served in the Netherlands.
Asked outside court if a few years behind bars would be appropriate for someone who played so central a role in the massive network, Wigell said, “This ring has been dead for 15, 17 years. ... He’s out of that life.”
Based in Thailand and Cambodia in the 1990s, Balogun was adept at recruiting couriers in hotels or airports, and they would then smuggle the heroin to the U.S. aboard airlines — sometimes swallowing it in small bags and expelling it after reaching Chicago, Riley said.
“This guy was a genius, including at recruiting couriers,” he said. “He also had ties to the Thai government at the time and with its military.”
Among the other key figures in the network were Nigerian women working out of the Chicago boutique shop — dubbed “queen bees” by investigators; they received the kilos of contraband from couriers, then distributed it in 100-gram containers to local street gangs, according to court documents.
The first breaks for investigators in the 1990s were the capture of couriers, who then revealed telephone numbers they were ordered to call upon arrival in Chicago. Authorities used that information to work their way of the chain of command, he said.
Dozens of his coconspirators were arrested worldwide in 1996, but Balogun evaded capture until his arrest in Amsterdam in 2006. Dutch authorities extradited him to the U.S. in February.
Balogun, who holds a business degree from the University of Lagos, elicited smiles by some court officials when the judge asked what career he intended to pursue once out of prison.
“I want to engage in transportation,” he said. “I have experience.”
Later, his lawyer explained to reporters that the married father of four ran a legitimate trucking company from 1996 to 2006 while on the lam from U.S. authorities.