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US Charges 35 Alleged Drug Traffickers in 'Baby Formula' Ring - 2001-12-15

U.S. government officials in Chicago have charged 35 people with participating in an international drug smuggling ring. Officials say participants used infants to help smugglers get past customs officials in the United States and other countries.

The government says the smuggling ring carried cocaine and heroin from Panama and Jamaica into the United States through Chicago, for distribution in that city, as well as New York and London. U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald said many of the couriers were women who carried infants to help ease their way through customs. "What essentially happened was mothers would travel with young babies," he said. "They would bring baby formula in cans. Liquid cocaine would be inserted into the baby formula. They would then travel through airports, assuming that customs inspectors and other officials would mistake the baby formula cans for being what they look like. They basically preyed upon human trust for mothers and babies."

Mr. Fitzgerald said parents who rented their children to smugglers were paid in cash or drugs. One of the 20 infants used by the smuggling ring was taken on six trips, the first at just three weeks of age.

The investigation began in 1999, when a customs inspector in New Jersey discovered a woman traveling to London had six baby formula cans filled with liquid cocaine.

The special agent in charge of the Customs Service in Chicago, Elissa Brown, said drug smugglers are always looking for new ways to sneak their cargoes past inspectors. "To me, being a parent, to use a child is just the most despicable thing you could possibly do," he said. "But, that is what drug smugglers do. They will perfect their craft and will come up with something else next week."

Officials say 18 people have already been convicted from earlier stages of the investigation. Authorities seized 24 kilograms of cocaine and a kilogram of heroin in this latest phase of the investigation.