CHICAGO (AP) — A longtime fugitive was sentenced Thursday to nine years in prison for his role in leading one of the world's largest heroin networks, which extended 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.
Balogun, of Ogun, Nigeria, evaded capture until his arrest in Amsterdam in 2006 as he sought to fly to Ghana. Dutch authorities extradited him to the U.S. in February.
Balogun initially faced a life sentence on multiple trafficking charges, but under the plea agreement the maximum he faced was nine years. Defense lawyer Raymond Wigell said his client could be out of prison in as little as 2 ½ years depending on how the Bureau of Prisons decides to factor in his time served in the Netherlands.
While Balogun, 53, trafficked pricey Asian heroin injected with a needle, today's Mexican- and Colombian-made heroin is as potent but cheaper and easier to ingest in its powder form, said Jack Riley, the Drug Enforcement Administration's head in Chicago.
"I'm excited to see Balogun in court," said Riley, who as a young agent in the mid-'90s worked on the investigation that helped bring down Balogun's network. "What's scary is we thought we had heroin licked. And look where we are now."
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 curriers," 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 women working out of a Chicago boutique shop; they received the contraband from couriers, then distributed it to local street gangs, who handled street-level sales, Riley said.
The women, like Balogun, were of Nigerian descent, which Riley said was a common feature of trafficking organizations in the '90s. Over the years, Mexicans and their operatives came to dominate the trade, he said.
The investigation of Balogun's crime group, dubbed Global Sea, was one of the largest operations of its kind at the time, Riley said. Dozens of coconspirators were arrested in 1996.
The first breaks for investigators in the 1990s were the capture of some of the network's couriers, who then revealed telephone numbers they were ordered to call upon arrival in Chicago. Authorities used that information to work their way up the chain of command, he said.
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.
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