Extradition of Nigerian to U.S. to face heroin dealing charges is announced

November 01, 1992|By Michael A. Fletcher | Michael A. Fletcher,Staff Writer

U.S. Attorney Richard D. Bennett announced the first-ever extradition of a suspected Nigerian drug dealer yesterday, after a man charged with smuggling "hundreds of millions of dollars" worth of heroin into the United States was flown to Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

The man extradited, Chris Okpala, 29, was arrested in Nigeria and turned over to federal agents yesterday. A spokesman for the federal Drug Enforcement Agency said the suspect would be held at the city's central police district lockup. If convicted, he could face life in prison without parole.

Mr. Bennett hailed the extradition -- which required the intervention of Nigerian President Ibraham Badmasi Babangida -- a breakthrough for worldwide drug enforcement efforts.

"This extradition sets a new precedent for worldwide cooperation in the ongoing efforts to combat international drug trafficking organizations," Mr. Bennett said.

In the past, the United States had sought the extradition of "14 or 15" suspected drug dealers, only to be thwarted by Nigeria's justice system. Judges believed Nigerian citizens would not receive fair trials in the United States, according to federal prosecutors.

The extradition is significant because more than 50 percent of the heroin in the Baltimore-Washington area moves through Nigerian connections, said Craig Chretien, the Drug Enforcement Agency's special agent in charge in Baltimore.

"This means that dealers are going to have to re-evaluate how they operate," Mr. Chretien said. "They are going to have to re-evaluate where they send their money, where they hide. Nigeria is no longer safe haven."

Earlier this year, a federal grand jury here had indicted Mr. Okpala and a colleague, Greg Odilibe, on charges of conspiracy to import and distribute heroin.

Federal prosecutors believe the men are key suppliers of heroin sold on the streets of Baltimore. Prosecutors said the men directed the importation of more than 60 kilograms of heroin into the United States since the mid-1980s.

They are charged with sending drugs to the United States by using people who swallow heroin-filled balloons or hide the heroin on their bodies or in their luggage.

A federal grand jury in Baltimore also has indicted a brother of each man, Sonny Odilibe and John Okpala, on conspiracy charges.

The remaining three suspects have yet to be apprehended by Nigerian authorities. All four suspects had been arrested in Nigeria last spring, but a Nigerian magistrate's court denied U.S. requests for their extradition and released them in the summer.

After that denial, U.S. Attorney General William H. Barr and the Nigerian attorney general met to reverse that decision.

Subsequently, the Nigerian president overruled his magistrates and ordered the extradition of all four men.

"We are pleased by this development," Mr. Bennett said. "But we did not expect that we would need the intervention of the president of the country to accomplish this."

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