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GetSmart About Drugs - A DEA Resource for Parents

News Release
January 29, 2004

12 Babies Rented Out by Mothers to Drug Smugglers as Decoys
Another Defendant Convicted in Case

photo - Sylvester Thomas

photo - Sylvester Thomas

photo - Sylvester Thomas
Drug smuggling operative Sylvester Thomas shows off weapons and material items gained through the exploitation of infants as part of the 'Baby Formula' cocaine and heroin smuggling network. Thomas received a sentence of Life in Prison for his role in the organization.

CHICAGO, IL - The sentencing of Van Burn Flowers to nine years imprisonment yesterday resurrected the horrors of a past DEA case. Flowers, a member of a multi-million dollar cocaine and heroin distribution network based in the South-side Chicago neighborhood of Englewood, used the wholesome image of infants to mask smuggling transports to the United States and the United Kingdom. Between 1996 and 1999, young female couriers, posing as mothers with babies, smuggled cocaine and heroin for the distribution ring. What that proved most shocking was that some of the babies used in the ruse were rented from their parents and shipped abroad as cover for the liquid cocaine and heroin being smuggled in baby formula cans and body cavities.

In the roughly 45 trips documented by the government, 22 babies where utilized as covert cover for drug shipments, 12 of whom where actually rented to drug couriers by their own parents in exchange for cash or drugs. Members of the conspiracy decided to smuggle cocaine into the United States from Panama by having women travel with babies carrying baby formula cans filled with liquid cocaine, believing that they would be successful because the women would not appear suspicious to U.S. Customs Service officers. The couriers were paid to travel from Chicago to Panama with the rented babies, to pick up the cocaine-filled baby formula cans in Panama, and then return to the U.S. with the babies and the cocaine, posing as mothers simply carrying food for their babies.

The majority of the drugs in this case were distributed in Chicago and New York, while some of the cocaine-filled baby formula cans were exported to the United Kingdom in a designed attempt to expand the smuggling scheme to Europe. Utilizing the same ruse, and some of the same women couriers and babies, cocaine from the organization was distributed to illicit-drug buyers in London and Birmingham, England.

photo - liquid cocaine
Liquid cocaine seized during the case in evidence storage bottles.

Clancy Watson Herrera, who is currently in custody in Panama, supplied cocaine and heroin to the conspiracy from Panama, and Byron Watson, of Montego Bay, Jamaica, supplied cocaine and heroin to the conspiracy from Panama and Jamaica. Herrera and Orville Wilson, of New York, originated the idea of having female couriers traveling with babies smuggle liquid cocaine in baby formula cans into the United States. Herrera, Watson and other co-conspirators liquefied the cocaine by adding hot water to it and putting it in a blender. They removed the labels from the baby formula cans and created a hold in the cans with a hammer and nail. They inserted the liquid cocaine in the cans with a syringe, soldered up the holes, and re-attached the labels to the cans.

photo - pellets and baby formula cans
Seized pellets of heroin and baby formula cans used to smuggle cocaine.

The couriers also smuggled cocaine and heroin into the United States from Panama and Jamaica by inserting the drugs into their body cavities before boarding their return flight to the United States. This organization also used a variety of illegal schemes to support their operation, including the acquisition of fraudulent U.S. passports and using bogus airlines tickets utilizing travel agent access to defraud the airline industry of an estimated $500,000.00.

The successful prosecution of this case was the result of an existing DEA case being merged with evidence provided by the vigilant discovery of Customs Inspectors. Combining the DEA case and the Customs case under the umbrella of one investigation was essential in ending this disturbing drug smuggling method and bringing those responsible to justice.

photo - baby bag and bottles
Baby bag and bottles used by drug couriers.

The DEA would again like to commend the extensive cooperation among local, federal and foreign lawn enforcement agencies that participated in the investigation. Specifically, the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (BICE), the Chicago Police Department, the New York Police Department, British Customs, formally known as Her Majesty’s Customs and Excise Law Enforcement Directorate, the National Police Department of Panama, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, The U.S. State Department’s Passport Office, and local police departments of Oak Lawn, Willow Springs, Bridgeview and Palos Hills, Illinois.

The defendants were charged and prosecuted by the Assistant United States Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Illinois. The defendants face mandatory minimum sentences of either five or ten years in prison and maximum prison terms of either 40 years or life, and various fines ranging as high as four million dollars. The United States Court determines the appropriate sentence to be imposed under the United States Sentencing Guidelines.


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