A Nigerian man who authorities say ran one of the most expansive heroin smuggling networks ever uncovered involving Houston's main airport is facing a potential life sentence after pleading guilty earlier this year.
Prosecutors say Koyode "Papa" Lawrence ran a drug ring from Nigeria's Lagos Island in which he directed couriers -- often college students who had been born in the U.S. and raised in Nigeria -- to smuggle heroin into the U.S. by swallowing capsules filled with the illegal drug.
The drug mules -- nicknamed "swallowers" by police -- would fly from Africa to Europe and then on to cities that are key points along smuggling pipelines such as Houston, Chicago, Washington, D.C. and New York and then expel dozens of pellets while squatting in a bathtub, the Houston Chronicle reported Tuesday.
The 45-year-old Lawrence, who was extradited from Nigeria last summer, is set to be sentenced in July.
One of Lawrence's former smugglers, a 23-year-old Nigerian college student who asked the newspaper to be identified only as Henry, served two years in prison after being caught at Houston's Bush Intercontinental Airport trying to sneak a load of drugs into the U.S.
"It was not painful, but it was uncomfortable," he recalled. "It was tough."
Swallowers take medication to constipate themselves before traveling and a laxative after reaching their final destinations, but there is only so much time -- about 15 hours -- that they can physically keep the pellets in their stomachs.
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Greg Tyler, a supervisory special agent for Homeland Security Investigations in Houston, said potential recruits would practice swallowing whole kola nuts or capsules of yam flower as part of their training from Lawrence.
At the Houston airport, the surge in demand meant twice as much heroin was seized in 2013 as the year before -- enough for about 50,000 dosages -- according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which inspects travelers and their cargo.
Tim Braley, a federal prosecutor for the Houston-based Southern District of Texas, said the flow of heroin and other drugs through Houston is because the city is located along drug trade routes from the U.S.-Mexico border.