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.
Standing in the Chicago court 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 F. Holderman in a brief statement before sentencing.
"I sincerely apologize for all the pain I have caused," he said in a soft, heavily accented voice. "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."
"You have engaged in very serious conduct," he added.
While Balogun 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 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 helped bring down Balogun's network.
Balogun, of Ogun, Nigeria, was initially looking at a life sentence on multiple trafficking charges, but a plea deal in June following his extradition from Holland meant that 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.
Asked after 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 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 back then. 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 co-conspirators were arrested in 1996, Balogun 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.
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.
For at least some Mexican cartels, heroin trafficked to the U.S. is now their No. 1 moneymaker, Riley said. While the majority of heroin in the United States come in via Mexico, Asian heroin and heroin from Afghanistan still makes up the bulk of supply to Europe, China and Russia, Riley said.
Statistics suggest that 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. And numbers who died from overdoses who had heroin in their system boomed 55 percent from 2000 to 2010, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports.