By Van Smith
Published in City Paper, May 23, 2012
Last April, thousands of miles from Baltimore in the West African country of Ghana, a man known as “Wagba” got on the phone and mediated a Baltimore heroin-dealing dispute.
Nana Boateng, who supplied Baltimore dealers with heroin shipped under Wagba’s direction by couriers traveling to the United States on commercial flights leaving West Africa, was in a heated argument with another Ghanaian, Krist Koranteng, who also supplied Baltimore heroin dealers with courier-carried heroin from West Africa.
The two were threatening one another, with Koranteng saying he’d arrange for men to come from Ghana to kill Boateng if he didn’t pay up for short-changing Koranteng’s friend, Moses Appram, on a 200-gram heroin deal. Boateng, in response, vowed to come to Ghana and kill Koranteng himself.
Since Boateng’s phones were wiretapped as part of a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) investigation, his conversations with Wagba were recorded for posterity. As a result of the probe, Boateng, Koranteng, Appram, and three others were indicted last year in Maryland federal court for participating in a heroin conspiracy. All of them pleaded guilty except Appram, whose three-day trial in Baltimore’s federal courthouse ended on May 2 with a jury conviction. Koranteng testified as a government cooperator, and Wagba’s name, as well as the recorded, translated, and transcribed phone conversations he had with Boateng, came up often during the trial.
Ultimately, no one was killed or attacked as a result of the dispute, and Koranteng testified that he ended up taking the loss on Appram’s ill-fated deal with Boateng. But Wagba’s dealings with Boateng did not end there. In late May 2011, according to court documents, Wagba coordinated a courier shipment of heroin to Boateng, who waited for six hours at Washington Dulles International Airport as the courier, who was caught by law enforcers as she arrived with 3.3 kilograms of heroin in her luggage, was detained and questioned by authorities. At the agents’ direction, the courier called Wagba, who told her “someone would get back to her. Shortly thereafter, a call from Boateng was received” on the courier’s phone, the court documents state.
That a phantom, faraway figure like Wagba could play such an intimate role in Baltimore’s heroin trade, both by managing a street-level flap like Appram’s flimflamming at the hands of Boateng and by orchestrating a subsequent intercepted delivery, speaks volumes about how closely tied Baltimore’s heroin trade is to West Africa, even though the two are thousands of miles apart. And that Koranteng, who was in Ghana as he argued over the phone with Boateng, suggested he could send Ghanaian killers to do his dirty work in Baltimore further emphasizes how small a world the global heroin trade sometimes can be.
But when looked at from a broader perspective, the heroin trade involving West Africa can seem immense, complex, and highly geopolitical, since the region is considered by the United Nations, the United States and other countries, and an array of nongovernmental organizations to be currently one of the world’s foremost transshipment points for narcotics from Asia and Latin America.
The reason for this, DEA special agent Todd Edwards explained on the stand at Appram’s trial, is that it is “difficult” for producers to ship directly to the United States from the source countries—Afghanistan, Pakistan, Laos, Cambodia, Colombia, and Mexico—because “everyone knows” they are source countries, so law-enforcement scrutiny will be greater. Heroin producers, therefore, prefer to “go to other countries to have the heroin shipped to the U.S.,” Edwards continued, “and Africa is one of those places, and Ghana and Nigeria are two of the major ones.”
Thus, criminals in West Africa not only get lucrative narco-business serving the transportation needs of the world’s heroin producers; they may also become strategically important to the producer’s larger strategic agendas. And increasingly, the United States is presenting evidence that those agendas have turned West Africa into a key locale for terrorists’ drug-trafficking and money-laundering activities.
In 2009, the same year the DEA opened an office in Accra, Ghana, three al Qaeda-linked men from Mali were arrested in Ghana and charged by U.S. authorities with drug trafficking in aid of terrorism—the first use of a new federal law passed in 2006. West African drug trafficking is also implicated in two other terror-financing cases filed recently in New York, one involving the Taliban and the other Hezbollah, a militant Muslim group and political party based in Lebanon that the United States and a handful of other Western and Middle Eastern countries regard as a terrorist group.
The Taliban case, filed in February 2011, accuses seven men, two of them U.S. citizens, of conspiring to help the Afghan religious movement’s heroin- and cocaine-trafficking enterprises and to sell weapons, including surface-to-air missiles, that the Taliban would use to protect its heroin-processing facilities in Afghanistan from attacks by U.S. forces. The lead co-conspirator, Maroun Saade, is described in the indictment as a “narcotics trafficker operating in West Africa” who agreed to transport “multi-ton shipments of Taliban-owned heroin” to Ghana, where “portions of those shipments would be sent by commercial airplane to the United States to be sold for the financial benefit of the Taliban.” Saade and the others allegedly believed they were dealing with the Taliban, but in fact they were dealing with confidential sources working on behalf of the DEA.
The other case is a civil forfeiture suit in which the U.S. government seeks to take ownership of the assets of businesses and banks involved in an alleged half-billion-dollar drug-money-laundering scheme to aid Hezbollah.
The central drug-trafficking figure accused in the Hezbollah case is Ayman Joumaa, a Lebanese man who is currently a fugitive from U.S. justice in a Virginia federal case charging him with bringing 85,000 kilograms of cocaine into the United States and laundering more than $850 million in Mexican drug-cartel money. Saade, from the Taliban case, also figures in this case, allegedly helping to move laundered cash derived from used-car sales in West Africa to Lebanon.
Though no prosecution brought so far in Maryland has drawn connections between Baltimore heroin dealers and West Africans tied to terrorism, the Hezbollah forfeiture case in New York includes two Maryland car dealers—one in Columbia, the other in Burtonsville, a small Montgomery County town of about 10,000 people, near Laurel—whose assets are being targeted for forfeiture because of evidence they helped launder Hezbollah drug money by accepting millions of dollars in wire transfers to buy cars and ship them to West Africa, where they were sold for cash bound for Lebanon.
In essence, the 65-page Hezbollah complaint describes an alleged scheme in which drug-derived cash was temporarily converted into cars. This would eliminate the risks of detection and headaches of shipping bulk cash back across the Atlantic Ocean to West Africa. Once the cars arrive there, though, they can quickly be converted back to cash—with a profit margin, given the higher prices the cars fetch in West Africa.
Both Appram and Koranteng were in the cars-to-West-Africa business, according to evidence in Appram’s trial. So were other co-conspirators who testified at Appram’s trial, as well as defendants in several other Maryland cases involving heroin from West Africa. In each instance, there is nothing to suggest the car-shipping enterprises were anything but legitimate. The coincidence is striking, however—especially in light of the fact that Appram and Koranteng are both residents of Burtonsville, where one of the car dealers with alleged Hezbollah ties is located.
Though heroin comes almost entirely from poppies grown in Asia and South America, as special agent Edwards explained during Appram’s trial, criminal trade routes of varying geography and sophistication convey it across the world. Judging by the Appram case, and numerous other recent cases in federal court here and in Virginia, law enforcers are mounting a sustained, multi-front assault on the West African route to Baltimore, especially through Ghana and Nigeria.
Commercial-air travelers entering the United States from West Africa as paid heroin couriers are a key element of the supply chain, court records show. With practice, so-called “internal smugglers” ingest “pellets”—finger-sized, egg-shaped packages of heroin—in seemingly impossible numbers. Adding to the flow are couriers who pack heroin not in their stomachs, but in their luggage, clothing, or wigs.
How much of this heroin smuggled from West Africa is bound for Baltimore’s streets is hard to say, but judging from the pace and scope of recent prosecutions, it’s significant. Here’s a chronological sampling:
Edward Aboagye, a Baltimore-based Ghanaian car dealer who exported vehicles to West Africa while enrolled as a student at Morgan State University, was charged in a heroin conspiracy, along with two others, after a half-kilogram of heroin in pellets was found in the safe of his hotel room at the Marriott Waterfront Hotel in downtown Baltimore on March 14, 2009. He pleaded guilty and testified against one of his co-conspirators, who was found guilty by a jury.
Two weeks later, Frank Aidoo, a Ghana-born Dutch citizen, was caught at Baltimore Washington International Airport (BWI) with 100 heroin pellets in his stomach; his business, according to court records, was buying clothing abroad to resell in Ghana. He pleaded guilty, but recently won an appeal of his sentence.
In January 2010, Suleiman Zakaria arrived at BWI on a flight that originated in Ghana, and three kilograms of heroin were found within the lining of his luggage. He was convicted at a jury trial after mounting a defense that included facts about his business: shipping used cars purchased in the United States to resell in Ghana.
In April 2011 in Virginia, eight people were indicted for a heroin-importation conspiracy that supplied Baltimore, along with other areas, with heroin that was brought by couriers from West Africa to the United States. Nearly all of the defendants have pleaded guilty.
In July 2011, Baltimore City Police officer Daniel Redd was among five indicted in a heroin conspiracy supplied from West Africa. One of the co-conspirators in the case, Abdul Zakaria, aka Tamim Mamah, is Suleiman Zakaria’s brother. He testified as a government cooperator at Appram’s trial, where, in explaining his work history, he said he “was buying cars and shipping them to Africa.” All five defendants in the Redd case have pleaded guilty.
Just after Christmas 2011, two men, Nana Bartels-Riverson and Awal Mohammad, were arrested on I-95 in Howard County after nearly a kilogram of heroin was found in the car they were driving. When interviewed by DEA agents, Mohammad explained that the heroin had come from Ghana via courier, and that they were taking it to Baltimore to sell to a dealer. Their case is still in court.
On Dec. 29, 2011, a wiretap investigation by DEA investigators targeting three alleged drug traffickers suspected of having couriers smuggle heroin into Maryland from Africa—Eddie Patrick, Kenneth Ukoh, and Chrisanti Ignass, who, court documents state, conducted heroin transactions at the InterContinental Harbor Court Hotel in Baltimore—culminated with an African courier in a Maryland hotel room, expelling what eventually turned out to be 80 heroin-filled condoms from his gastrointestinal tract. Their case is still in court.
In March, a Nigerian woman, Ngozi Helen Omokoh, and two Maryland men—David Shenard Merritte of Baltimore and Larry Deen Hutchinson of Prince George’s County—were charged after all three were found in a Maryland hotel room where Omokoh had delivered 725 grams of heroin pellets. Their case is still in court.
On May 3, after a 15-month wiretap investigation, the DEA arrested Joseph Osiomwan, a 51-year-old car dealer who lives in idyllic Monkton, near the posh Manor Tavern five-star restaurant, and owns Woodland Motors, a used-car dealership on Reisterstown Road in Baltimore City. He was arrested as he left an alleged stash house in Northeast Baltimore, and when the agents searched him, they found what they described in court documents as three “fingers” or “eggs” of heroin, commonly used for “heroin to be smuggled into the United States via an internal body carrier.”
One of the common themes running through the stories of the defendants in many of these West African-tied heroin cases in Maryland is that many of them are not solely drug dealers, but also pursue legitimate-looking enterprises—especially buying cars in the United States for resale in West Africa.
How illegitimate such enterprises allegedly can be is illustrated in the Taliban and Hezbollah cases filed in New York. In the absence of any such accusations involving West Africa’s heroin trade in Maryland, though, all the public can know is that people like Wagba in Ghana coordinate shipments of heroin to Baltimore and mediate street beefs—or perhaps settle them—from afar, and that the heroin couriers will continue to come, supplying Baltimore’s streets with heroin.