CHICAGO, Dec. 14 -- Federal officials today charged 35 people with running an international cocaine and heroin smuggling ring that used women traveling with infants -- some of them "rented" from poor families -- to transport drugs in cans of baby formula.
"This operation preyed on the great respect that we as human beings all afford mothers and babies -- and betrayed that respect brazenly," Patrick J. Fitzgerald, the United States attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, said in announcing the indictments here this morning. "Renting babies for the purpose of allowing drug dealers to smuggle cocaine is truly a new low."
According to indictments unsealed today, over the last two years female couriers flew on 34 occasions with 20 different infants from Chicago to Panama, where they picked up formula cans injected with liquefied cocaine, and then returned. Others smuggled cocaine into the United States from Jamaica inside rum bottles, the handles of their suitcases or injected into their body cavities.
Most of the drugs were distributed in Chicago and New York, but some were sold in London and Birmingham, England, officials said.
Scott Levine, an assistant United States attorney, said parents in the Englewood neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago were paid $200 to $2,000, plus marijuana in some cases, to send their babies on the trips, which lasted from two days to two weeks. One child, the daughter of Keith Moore, 35, and Marisa Hardy, 22, made six trips, the first when she was 3 weeks old, the indictment says.
"On that trip the baby was crying and looked sickly," Mr. Levine said in an interview. "The baby was crying a lot, so Catrina Martin left her in an empty bathtub and closed the door." On a separate trip, he said, "That same baby was crying so much that the courier, Shanae Reed, left her alone in the hotel room and went out for a beer."
Ms. Martin was arrested in London with the baby and about 18 baby- formula cans containing six kilos of cocaine, Mr. Levine said. Mr. Moore and Ms. Hardy, who are among four Chicago parents charged with loaning or renting their children to the operation, have had their parental rights terminated and the baby, now more than 2 years old, has been adopted.
"These drug dealers used the most depraved way possible in which to import and export their commodity," Mr. Levine said. "There are people who are willing to do anything and come up with any imaginable way of smuggling cocaine and heroin into the United States and out of the United States."
Of the 35 people indicted, three were arraigned today, and four others are in custody on previous charges. Nineteen other people the authorities say were connected to the ring have previously been charged, and all but one of them convicted, over the past two years.
The operation was exposed when a customs inspector in Newark stopped a woman traveling to London in January 1999 and discovered six formula cans filled with liquid cocaine, officials said. Separately, Chicago police also received a call from a frantic mother when her baby failed to return from a smuggling trip after a week.
According to the indictment, Clacy Watson Herrera, who is in custody in Panama, and Byron Watson of Montego Bay, Jamaica, supplied the drugs. They liquefied the cocaine in a blender with hot water, officials said, squirted it with a syringe through holes in the cans made with a hammer and nail, soldered the holes and reattached the baby formula labels.
Each 16-ounce can held up to $700,000 worth of cocaine, which was later turned into crack for sale, the authorities said.
The suspects include parents of the "rented" babies, women who acted as couriers, people who fraudulently obtained free airline tickets and false passports, and those who orchestrated the scheme. One of the ringleaders, officials say, is Selena Johnson, 29, who recruited Mr. Moore and Ms. Hardy's baby. The indictment says that Orville Wilson, 38, a New Yorker, came up with the scheme of having female couriers travel with babies and cans of formula.
A total of 20 kilos of cocaine was seized on four trips. The authorities believe the ring may have made as many as 45 such trips. The suspects face penalties ranging from five years to life in prison, with fines up to $4 million. The charges are all drug- related.