Federal authorities said Friday they had smashed an international heroin ring stretching from Southeast Asia to middle America, run mostly by Nigerian women who rose from the ranks of drug couriers to become drug “queenpins” with a multimillion-dollar smuggling operation.
Attorney General Janet Reno, joined by Drug Enforcement Agency Administrator Thomas Constantine and other officials at a Justice Department news conference, said 34 arrests were made in the United States, Thailand and Pakistan under federal indictments issued in Chicago and Boston naming 44 people.
Reno said the arrests would “dismantle an international drug ring run predominately by Nigerian women.”
Constantine said the investigation showed that “Nigerian criminal organizations are no longer just couriers but have developed into major heroin traffickers in their own right.”
Justice Department officials said 15 of those arrested were women originally from the west African nation, including Jumoke Kafayat Majekodunmi, who operated a women’s clothing boutique in Chicago, which a federal affidavit identified as a headquarters for the drug ring’s operations.
Constantine said the “important international Nigerian syndicate” was based in Bangkok, Thailand, and smuggled heroin through Europe and Mexico to U.S. points including Boston and Chicago.
He said “street gangs in the Midwest” also were major recipients of the drugs.
Anthony Smith, described as a key conspiracy figure, was arrested in Bangkok, but another leader, Musiliu Balogun, remains at large, officials said.
Operation Global Sea, as the investigation was called, began in Boston. In addition to the Boston investigation, a 1-ounce undercover purchase of heroin in Milwaukee by federal agents launched another aspect of the probe.
Officials said the ring began a decade ago when a group of Nigerian women began smuggling heroin for existing organized-crime groups. But the smugglers progressed since then “to the point where they are as powerful as any in the world,” said Constantine.