So far in 2016, Maryland State Police have seized almost 23 pounds of heroin, including about 3 pounds in the western region, which includes Frederick County. But the county is only one offramp from a massive and twisting global network that stretches to Asia and South America.
As the demand for heroin took off in the U.S. after 2010 as the result of a sharp increase in prescription drug addiction, drug cartels in South America gradually began cultivating poppy fields to synthesize heroin. Thanks to existing partnerships with Mexican cartels, South American heroin — primarily from Colombia — now predominates east of the Mississippi River, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
So while South Asia, primarily Afghanistan and Pakistan, still produces most of the world’s heroin, the deadly drug is now firmly planted in the Western Hemisphere.
“I got here in 1997, to Baltimore, and at that time, a kilo of heroin was $100,000 to $110,000,” DEA Special Agent Todd Edwards said in an interview. “Now, 17, 18 years later, you can get it for $60,000 a kilo and in better purity because they’re growing it in South America. Instead of transporting it over a huge ocean, you can do a land transport.”
Still, getting the drug across the U.S.-Mexico border, then another 2,000-plus miles to the streets of Frederick, takes far more than a single step.
Crossing the border
The first stop heroin shipments make upon arriving in the U.S. are typically to what DEA officials refer to as a “source city,” Edwards said.
These are generally cities near to the border, and officers working in these cities are uniquely situated to observe how drugs arrive from the border and then how they are shipped out to the rest of the country.
“Typically, heroin arrives in some sort of vehicle,” said Lt. Darren Viner, commander of the Phoenix Police Department’s Street Enforcement Unit. “We’ll find kilos inside of tires or inside the axle of, say, an 18-wheeler, or in traps lining the underside of the car. Really, the sky is the limit.”
Viner compared the attitudes of drug smugglers to their counterparts in more legitimate businesses. Much like store owners who lose inventory, or restaurants that experience breakage or food spoilage, drug dealers usually factor “acceptable losses” into their profit models to account for shipments intercepted by police, Viner said.
“You have hundreds of thousands of vehicles that come across the border every day. Only a certain number of them can be checked,” Viner said. “Some are going to slip through. It’s just simple math.”
If recent statistics are any indication, the cartels and their distribution centers in the United States are happy enough with the odds to write off more and more product each year. Viner’s unit seized just 8.3 kilos of heroin in 2010. Last year, the same unit seized 80.2 kilos, he said.
A lucrative business
The business-model approach to drugs remains relevant after heroin arrives in the United States, Edwards said, citing DEA studies and firsthand accounts from dealers.
“I had a guy explain it to me, that he’d get a kilogram of 96 percent pure heroin from the Mexicans for $55,000,” Edwards said. “If you get a kilo that’s 96 percent pure for $55,000, you can, what we call, ‘step on it,’ or ‘stretch it,’ maybe three times. So, he would turn that 1 kilo into 3 or 4 kilos of 20 or 25 percent purity.”
Selling one of those kilograms at bulk price would ensure a complete return on a dealer’s investment, but heroin is often broken down into even smaller amounts, all the way down to a tenth of a gram — a single dose — to maximize profit, Edwards said.
Law enforcement agencies encounter heroin of varying levels of purity and at different stages of this sinuous process all across the country, Edwards explained.
More often than not, large amounts of heroin end up in what the DEA refers to as “secondary cities,” such as Baltimore, before it is cut many more times, Edwards said.
The Baltimore Police Department declined to be interviewed for this story.
Capt. Michael Fluharty, commander of Maryland State Police’s western region, said he believes Baltimore is just the most convenient source for addicts in Frederick County.
“We’ve seen it come straight from Mexico, we’ve seen it come from out of the harbors of Baltimore, and we’ve seen it come from the north, from Philly or New York,” Fluharty said. “It’s all directions.”
Policing the ‘Heroin Highway’
The popularity of Baltimore as a market for local heroin is not lost on local law enforcement agencies, including the state police and the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office.
“You have addicts who are making this trip once, maybe even twice a day to Baltimore to get their drugs. It can be that much,” said Sgt. Jason Deater, supervisor of the sheriff’s office’s narcotics unit.
And with so many potential targets using the same pipeline, heroin arrests are skyrocketing, with each department using tactics best suited to its core mission, Fluharty said.
“As state police, one of our primary functions is traffic enforcement, so we use that,” Fluharty said. “During stops, if our troopers see criminal indicators and think there’s something more suspicious going on, then they’re going to follow up and find out.”
Indicators could be subtle, such as excessive nervousness or evasiveness when a driver answers an officer’s questions. Sometimes, the signs are more obvious, like when a trooper sees paraphernalia — syringes or packaging materials — in the car, Fluharty said.
From there, officers often rely on K-9 units from their own or any available agency to sniff the car. If the dog alerts on the car, police can search it, Fluharty said.
Frederick County Sheriff’s Office K-9 units helped seize 172.1 grams of heroin in 2013, Deater said. Another 186.7 grams were seized in 2014.
Baltimore’s and Frederick County’s heroin trades, while intimately linked, are completely different, requiring different approaches to keep in check.
While high-level dealers more closely resembling those seen in Baltimore occasionally crop up in Frederick County, most people charged with possessing heroin with the intent to distribute in Frederick County don’t fit that mold, Deater said.
“You might have a group of people who know each other who all have an addiction problem and they might all throw their money together,” Deater said. “Are they dealing drugs? Well, yes, but are they going out and distributing drugs like something you might see on TV? No.”
With the increasing recognition that heroin addiction is an illness, many police agencies are focusing their enforcement efforts on “true,” higher-level dealers and working more closely than ever with health officials to address the less threatening end users caught up in arrests.
Organizations such as the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy’s High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program, which teams local police up with state and federal partners, make sharing information easier than ever, Fluharty said.
“We’ll make an arrest, and it might be bigger than we anticipated, and [the DEA] will be Johnny-on-the-spot ...,” Fluharty said. “They might even take the drugs that we just seized and try to deliver them; go and try to complete the delivery to figure out where they were going.”
Referring back to his comparison between the way heroin traffickers view drug busts to the way most shops factor in acceptable losses, Viner likened the role of cooperative police agencies to a determined group of shoplifters.
Viner, whose detectives in Phoenix work daily with both DEA and U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents, summed the analogy up concisely.
“We’re all on the same team,” Viner said. “Our objective is to push past those margins of ‘acceptable losses’ so that we’re putting a dent in their productivity and their ability to thrive as a business.”