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Drug ring used babies to ferry product

He knocked on the door of the squalid basement apartment, looking for a young couple. Their baby girl had been stopped at an airport thousands of miles away, and it wasn't her first suspicious trip.

The 8-month-old had already traveled to Panama and London five times, usually in the arms of strangers and often exposed to danger. The latest trip had ended abruptly with an arrest _ at Heathrow Airport.

"Your baby was with a woman who was caught with drugs," U.S. Customs agent Pete Darling told the parents. "Can you folks tell me what's going on?"

Calmly _ too calmly, he thought _ the couple claimed their child had been taken from a babysitter's house and they had filed a kidnapping report.

Darling noticed the parents were sickly looking and the apartment was a mess: dirty dishes in the sink, cardboard boxes on the floor, the smell of marijuana.

He knew something was terribly wrong.

What Darling didn't know was he had begun to unravel an international drug smuggling ring _ a multimillion-dollar business that stretched from flea-bag hotels in Panama to the Bronx to the industrial heart of England.

And it ran through the drug-ridden, decaying South Side neighborhood where Darling now stood _ the place the smugglers turned to for a precious commodity:

Babies.

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As he prowled the terminal at Atlanta's Hartsfield International Airport, Mike McDaniel was already suspicious.

For weeks, the Customs inspector had been encountering women, some with babies, passing through en route to Chicago, who claimed they had visited husbands or boyfriends in the military in Panama.

But their stories were fishy.

The hotels they claimed they stayed at were nowhere near military bases. McDaniel knew because he had served in the U.S. Army in Panama. He had also grown up near Chicago, so he realized the women lived in the same neighborhood.

McDaniel had done luggage searches, but nothing turned up.

Then, McDaniel stopped Donna Washington, who said she had taken her grandson to see his father, stationed in Panama for the Army. But she wasn't able to tell him her son's address or rank.

When McDaniel looked inside her luggage, he found six large baby formula cans and a seventh small one.

He tested liquid from one can. The result: cocaine.

He tested a piece of pellet from the solid-sounding can. The result: heroin.

Washington feigned surprise.

But her attitude turned indignant as McDaniel picked up the baby's bottle, twisted off the cap and sniffed it.

"What kind of person do you think I am?" she asked.

He didn't answer.

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Customs agents now had two arrests _ London and Atlanta _ with the same pattern.

Both women carried other people's babies, lived in Englewood and were accused of smuggling drugs in the same ingenious way: infant formula cans _ using toddlers as decoys.

Darling, a newcomer to Chicago and the Customs Service, started piecing together the puzzle.

Accompanied by a Chicago police officer, Darling returned to the couple whose baby had been stopped in London. "You guys have got to tell me the truth," he told them.

The parents, drug-addicted and HIV-positive, told Darling that a neighborhood woman, Selina Johnson, had asked to be their baby's godmother, promising free milk and clothes for the child.

Johnson was more than 6 feet tall and charismatic: As the so-called first lady of the Sisters of the Struggle _ a female auxiliary of the Gangster Disciples street gang _ she could deal drugs in her neighborhood with impunity.

The couple told Darling that when their baby was 3 weeks old, they allowed Johnson to take her for a few days _ not even asking where they were going.

They admitted they had "rented" their baby to be used as a decoy for drug smugglers. The going rate: about $200-$400 a trip or a small amount of marijuana.

Other women, too, had taken their baby, they said.

They rattled off names but didn't always know precisely where the women lived.

Darling took notes, his mind racing with a new reality: This drug ring was much bigger than he thought.

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A paper trail would provide many clues.

Darling and federal prosecutor Scott Levine spent months poring over customs records and airline tickets, tracking the couriers' travels.

The smugglers flew from Panama City, Panama, and Montego Bay and Kingston, Jamaica, to Chicago, New York, London and Birmingham, England, bringing in more than 100 kilos of cocaine and 6 kilos of heroin.

The couriers were paid as much as $4,000 a trip; some also received drugs.

Most of the drugs were concealed in formula cans the smugglers figured would escape detection by drug-sniffing dogs. Cocaine was liquefied in Panama and injected into the can, which was then soldered and the label reattached.

Jamaicans, Colombians, Panamanians and Americans all participated in the conspiracy. Fake passports and drivers licenses were obtained, and the couriers, many of them addicts themselves, took their own children or carried "rented" babies on dozens of trips _ a scam, says Levine, that posed extraordinary dangers.

"Can you imagine," the prosecutor fumes, "a drug addict from Chicago traveling in a foreign country where she does not even speak the language, taking care of a baby she has never seen, attempting to score some heroin . . . while she waits for cocaine-filled baby formula cans to arrive?"

That happened to the child identified in court records as "Baby 8."

Her travels began when she was deposited in an empty hotel bathtub in Panama because she wouldn't stop crying.

She was sickly, abnormally small _ and just 3 weeks old.

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Taking down a drug ring is like dismantling a pyramid, stone by stone, from the bottom up.

In this case, Levine and fellow prosecutor David Hoffman, both veterans of the drug wars, "flipped" the baby-carrying couriers, then worked their way up.

It wasn't long before several couriers had confessed and two leaders _ Troy Henry and Orville Wilson, both Jamaicans _ were cooperating. Wilson, in turn, told prosecutors the formula cans were the brainchild of Clacy Watson Herrera, a Colombian charged with supplying most of the drugs.

Levine couldn't help thinking it was sheer luck that none of the 22 babies was injured or mistakenly given cans filled with drugs.

It would take 2{ years to make the arrests.

The last was Selina Johnson, who swallowed 20 to 30 dime bags of crack to hide evidence when she was apprehended.

Over the next two years, 48 defendants pleaded guilty, including Johnson, who received a 10-year sentence. The couriers were sentenced to five to 10 years in prison; the parents who rented their babies, from 10 months to eight years.

One last defendant, a leader who obtained drugs and organized several Jamaican trips, will be sentenced Wednesday. Three men remain fugitives, and Herrera is serving a 72-month sentence in Panama for drug trafficking on an unrelated case. Prosecutors hope to extradite him to Chicago.

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