Afghan heroin trafficker gets life in US prison

A notorious Afghan drug trafficker was sentenced Tuesday to life in prison for using proceeds of one of the world's largest heroin distribution operations to support the Taliban insurgency.

Haji Bagcho manufactured heroin in secret laboratories along Afghanistan's border with Pakistan and sent drugs to more than 20 countries. He was arrested in May 2009 and brought to the United States to face charges following a years-long investigation by Afghan and American authorities. Prosecutors said his vast drug trafficking network in eastern Afghanistan produced hundreds of thousands of kilograms of heroin, including shipments intended for the U.S., and funneled proceeds to high-level Taliban officials who protected him from police there.

He maintained his innocence during a long and rambling statement at his sentencing hearing in federal court in Washington. His lawyer pleaded for leniency because his client is at least 70 years old and in failing health, and said he doubted a long prison sentence would deter international drug traffickers. But U.S. District Judge Ellen Huvelle rejected those arguments, saying Bagcho was responsible for an "astronomical" quantity of drugs and that a life sentence — the maximum possible prison term — was warranted.

Bagcho was also ordered to forfeit more than $254 million in drug proceeds.

Justice Department prosecutor Matthew Stiglitz said Bagcho was "really in a class by himself" among drug traffickers but that the quantity of drugs only tells part of the story. He urged the judge to take into account "what is it he did with the money generated during this massive drug enterprise."

Bagcho used some proceeds to provide support, including cash, weapons and other supplies, to Taliban commanders who shielded his operation from the police. He and his son professed that they were fighting to get the Americans out of Afghanistan, encouraged other traffickers to support the Taliban and urged farmers to grow opium "so we can make heroin to kill the infidels," prosecutors wrote in a sentencing memorandum.

"Today's life sentence is an appropriate punishment for one of the most notorious heroin traffickers in the world," Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer said in a written statement.

Afghan authorities and the Drug Enforcement Administration began investigating Bagcho in late 2004 and early 2005, relying on help from, among others, a confidential informant who had once worked as Bagcho's assistant and who described for authorities the inner workings of the drug operation. The assistant told authorities how he traveled with Bagcho to heroin conversion laboratories and how he would help package heroin and transport shipments, often while armed with an AK-47.

Others who provided help included an undercover Afghan police officer recorded phone calls with Bagcho in which they discussed potential heroin sales into the United States, and a DEA confidential source who told authorities that his father operated an opium shop where Bagcho bought opium for conversion into heroin.

The DEA bought heroin directly from Bagcho's operation, and also discovered a ledger of transactions during their investigation showing that Bagcho's organization was responsible for trafficking more than 123,000 kilograms of heroin — with a wholesale value of more than $261 million — in 2006 alone. Federal authorities say that amounted to roughly one-fifth of the total amount of heroin produced worldwide that year.

After a first trial ended last fall with a hung jury, Bagcho was convicted in March of conspiracy, distributing heroin for importation into the United States and narcoterrorism. The Justice Department says this case is just the second under the narcoterrorism statute, which was enacted in 2006, to reach trial. The statute makes it a crime to use drug sale proceeds to finance acts of terrorism.

Speaking rapidly through an interpreter, Bagcho appeared agitated as he proclaimed his innocence, saying he was simply a merchant like his father and grandfather before him and attempting to rehash elements of his trial.