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The northeastern United States has long been a center of American culture and history, but its big population and distribution centers, and isolated and remote towns, have also made it a paradise for drug traffickers. From South America, drugs are shipped up to major ports and terminals on the East Coast, where a complex series of highways and close borders breed addiction and death in crowded inner cities and small rural settlements.
In explaining the drug crisis facing New Jersey, Vice News writes of drug dealers who use the Port Newark-Elizabeth Marine Terminal to receive chemically unadulterated heroin that comes through Mexico from Colombia. In Colombia, the supply of opium (and the heroin from which it is processed) is controlled by bloodthirsty and deadly crime rings, including the Sinaloa cartel, which is one of the most powerful drug trafficking organizations in the world today. That power allows the cartel to supply their heroin directly to the big port terminals in New York and New Jersey. No other drug ring is able to exert enough influence to the point where they can make such strategic landfall on the continental US.1
This access allows dealers in New Jersey to spread the purest heroin in the country, as customers receive product that is uncut or unmixed with any other substance (as would be the case the further the heroin has to travel).2 The rampant overprescription of opioid-based prescription painkillers from pharmaceutical companies and unethical doctors has created a massive public health crisis in the Garden State, to the point where Vice’s headline simply reads: “A heroin epidemic is plaguing New Jersey.”3
Heroin is sold to users living anywhere along the East Coast in packets that cost between $6 and $10.
The special narcotics prosecutor in New York, whose office tracks large-scale drug trafficking movements in the state, calls New York “the head of the Hydra,” for how crime rings in other areas are setting up complex operations in the Empire State, so as to better meet the booming demand for heroin in their local areas. She told The New York Times that the smugglers are “highly organized,” moving a high volume of heroin “much more efficiently and effectively.”
When cars make deliveries to the mills in the Bronx and Upper Manhattan, crime ring members divide the heroin into small glassine envelopes, stamp the envelopes with a brand, and then bundle everything together for distribution and selling. While the whole operation is methodical and calculated, the branding hints at the quixotic nature of the trade; a raid in March 2014 found that one suggested brand name was “Heisenberg,” the fictional methamphetamine kingpin on the TV show Breaking Bad.
Besides being one of the most populated states in the country, and among the most densely populated states, New York offers a vast local market and very easy access and transportation to other areas on the East Coast (most notably, New Jersey). The combinations led to large heroin seizures on a scale unlike anything law enforcement has ever encountered before, said the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s New York office.
One of the biggest access points for traffickers working out of New Jersey is Baltimore, less than 200 miles away. With a generation of political corruption and explosive racial conflicts behind it, the drug trade has capitalized on the city known as “the heroin capital of the United States.”410% of Baltimore’s population of 645,000 is addicted to heroin
Baltimore is officially a “High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area,” a designation given by the federal government to allow local officials to request and receive additional resources to combat the surging tide. The director of the Baltimore program, which is a joint venture by federal, Maryland, and local law enforcement and lawmakers, told ABC News that the heroin culture in his city goes back a long way, so much so that for many modern-day residents, being part of the drug scene – whether trucking shipments into the city, selling packets of heroin on street corners, or simply using the product – is a normal way of life.5
The situation has led to Baltimore being home to the highest number of heroin addicts in America and home to the most heroin-related crimes in America. In 2013 alone, Baltimore saw over 300 of its residents die as a result of overdosing on heroin. Ten percent of Baltimore’s population of 645,000 is addicted to heroin, as residents – mostly poor, African American, uneducated, with limited job opportunities, and frequently targeted by police – look to escape (and profit from) the crime and injustice that was starkly dramatized by the television show The Wire, the reality of which was praised by actual citizens of Baltimore, even as they lamented the many ways the drug trade had devastated their hometown.6, 7
Of course, where young men and women see devastation and poverty, drug traffickers see an opportunity. In 2013, agents from US Customs and Border Protection caught a shipment of 128 pounds of cocaine coming to Baltimore from Panama. The street value of the shipment was $4 million.8
Baltimore’s accessibility via a network of interstates and state highways makes it one of the key focal points for drug trafficking in the Northeast. When plotting out distribution routes, smugglers look at the number of major population hubs on Interstates 95, 83, and 78, all of which connect Baltimore to New England, the Northeast, and New York City.
It is a “highway to hell,” in the words of MassLive.com. The publication quotes the US Drug Enforcement Administration’s 2014 National Drug Threat Assessment Summary, which reports that a majority of the heroin distributed throughout the region comes from New York through the “vast interstate highway system.”9
That system allows for easy transportation to and from areas like western Massachusetts, which is one of the staging areas that traffickers use to focus their efforts on the picturesque landscapes of Vermont, Maine, and New Hampshire. Smugglers use private, rented, borrowed, or leased vehicles (with hidden hydraulic compartments), sometimes brazenly using public transportation, like buses or trains, to make deliveries.
Organized crime rings are unwittingly helped by a very efficient transportation infrastructure. Massachusetts, for example, has three interstate highways that connect it to Connecticut and Rhode Island, two to New Hampshire, and one each to Vermont and New York. Interstate 95, which links New York to Baltimore, offers further access to all the major cities on the East Coast, and provides a northern connection to the Canadian and a southern terminus in Florida. The DEA report mentions that Lawrence and Lowell, both north of Boston, are used by smugglers to make deliveries across northern New England, even crossing into Canadian territory.
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According to the DEA, most of the people who are served along these routes are “lower-income Caucasians,” which speaks to the breadth and scope of the areas that are linked by complex highway system. The interstates and state roads snake through rural regions, opening up small and lonely towns to dealers. Such bucolic areas couldn’t be more different to the crowded and suffocating inner cities of Baltimore, but there is nonetheless a void that dealers are all too happy to fill.
To that point, the highest rates of substance abuse take place across New England, particularly in Vermont, the Commissioner of the Vermont Department of Health told The New York Times.10 A lot goes on the quaint and quiet towns of the Northeast, sometimes much more than meets the eye. One of the problems, and an opportunity for traffickers, is that law enforcement has a generally reduced presence in rural areas; this is, after all, the region of moonshine and illegal alcohol distilleries that have operated for generations, not out of a desire to capitalize on the black market, but more out of a disdain for local and state government telling citizens what they can and cannot do.
It’s part of the culture, says Rice and Bread magazine on the topic of illicit alcohol production, a similar way of life as the heroin business in Baltimore.11 It is in this culture that organized crime rings see an opportunity – to operate with minimal presence of law enforcement, knowing that the people in the small towns and settlements of New England keep to themselves and mind their own business.
But the business of the drug trade in bucolic New England is killing hundreds, if not thousands, of people every year. In 2014, Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin dedicated his entire state of the state address to the topic of highlighting what he called “a full-blown heroin crisis.”12 Shumlin told his residents of the over $2 million in heroin and other drugs being shipped into Vermont every week. From 2000 to 2012, there were more than 770 reported cases of people checking into treatment centers for opioid addictions, and 80 percent of Vermont’s incarcerated population is behind bars due to drug-related crimes.
The problem is acute in Vermont, says The New York Times, but it is by no means limited to one of the smallest states in the country.13 Heroin is flooding the smaller cities and towns of New England, in places such as Maine, where the assistant chief of the Portland Police Department commented in 2013 that his department was overwhelmed by “an inordinate number of heroin overdoses.”14
Maine, says the Portland Press Herald, is “fertile ground” for drug traffickers. It is a world away from the crowded and bustling streets and of New York City, but the economic reality of supply and demand can bring anyone together.16
In July 2016, the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency confiscated two pounds of heroin worth $450,000, the largest such drug bust in the state’s history.15
The “supply” arises from the epidemic levels of prescription medication abuse, particularly of the oxycodone painkiller, manufactured and distributed by Purdue Pharma as OxyContin. The company’s promotional and marketing blitzkrieg made OxyContin the most prescribed drug in America almost overnight, even as Purdue downplayed how quickly the drug’s effects wore off, and wined and dined doctors to encourage them to push OxyContin to their patients over drugs manufactured by other companies.17
This led to the demand – the ravenous demand for more medication to be obtained by borrowing (or even stealing) from friends of family, forging prescriptions and faking symptoms, and buying and selling packets (and even individual pills) illegally. When the supply ran out, or the OxyContin became too much to afford, people turned to heroin, derived from the same chemical compounds as oxycodone, because the effects are so similar: a warm, blissful rush, followed by an inhumanly powerful sense of calm and sedation, so strong that it makes all the good and bad of normal life fade away.
Heroin, says the Portland Press Herald, swoops in to fill the gap caused by an inability to secure more prescription painkillers. Drug traffickers are all too aware of this, and they trade equally in pills and little bags of heroin, knowing their consumers are too desperate to discern any better.
The problem is seeded so deep that the director of the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency explains that bulk heroin is being milled and packaged in his state, partly because the New York market is so oversaturated that dealers and traffickers have begun to look elsewhere to ply their trade.
The situation is such that drug trafficking in the Northeast has become a regional enterprise. In 2014, 17 percent of all the people the Maine DEA arrested for smuggling were not Maine residents. The operations have become so big that larger criminal organizations have either moved into the area or deploy their agents from out of state.
In January 2015, a drug bust revealed “a concrete link” between drug trafficking in Maine and a gang that ran its business out of the New York City borough of Queens. Two of the people arrested in the bust were directly associated with the Crips, one of the most violent and largest street gangs in the United States.
The Portland Press Herald writes that the New York connection came as something of a surprise, as most of Maine’s heroin is trucked in from Massachusetts.
But while names like Crips and Queens conjure images of grimy inner cities, it is tourist destinations like Old Orchard Beach in Maine that are suffering the brunt of the heroin trade. Its many motels that offer discounted rates in the off-season are a perfect spot for dealers to settle in, basking in the knowledge that a place like Old Orchard Beach – population 8,624; land area 7.43 square miles – doesn’t have the law enforcement resources to stop them.
In the face of such a massive problem, the police have to prioritize. In February 2015, Maine state police officially linked up with a task force of forces in other East Coast states, to better investigate the trafficking of heroin across their shared borders. Members of the task force will exchange information related to identities of known and suspected dealers, as well as locations of safe houses, and intelligence obtained from wiretaps, informants, witnesses, and other sources.
Nonetheless, the mood among the authorities remains bleak. The police chief of Old Orchard Beach told the Portland Press Heraldthat the fight continues, even if there’s no knowing if any progress is being made.
What is it about such idyllic and picture-perfect settings that can breed such an appetite for a drug like heroin? The Guardianwrites of the phrase coined to describe the problem: hillbilly heroin. In the rural and rustic corners of New England, the population is generally lower income and usually uneducated. Law enforcement is in small numbers and far away. At least four in 10 people are hooked on a diet of prescription painkillers. For drug traffickers looking to avoid the attention and scrutiny they get in the big cities of the Northeast, what they find tucked away in the towns and farms of New England is ideal landscape.18
In February 2016, USA Today referred to the “heroin apocalypse” in historic New Hampshire, using the words of the beleaguered Manchester police chief to describe the spike in overdoses and fatalities. At least one person dies every day in the tiny state, where dealers are resorting to violence – sometimes accepting payment in the form of firearms – to ensure their own safety as they peddle their wares.
In 2015, three members of a ring in New York were arrested in connection to a drugs-for-guns operation. Much like the same way that drugs make landfall in New York and are then spread across the region, the weapons in the scheme were traced back to New York.19
A 2011 federal study found that treatment rates for addictions to opioids were higher in the New England area than anywhere else in the country. One of the places targeted by drug rings is West Virginia, where according to a 2013 report, the ninth smallest state in the country loses 28.9 per every 100,000 of its residents to drug overdose deaths, giving it the highest such mortality rate in the country. In 1999, the mortality rate was 4.1 per every 100,000 people, meaning that in 14 years, West Virginia’s overdose rate went up by 605 percent.20
A big reason for that might be the innocuous dwelling of Kermit, West Virginia. With a population of fewer than 500 people and an area of 0.39 square miles, it is the perfect place for a drug trafficking ring to spread its poison. Like other places in the state, Kermit’s populace is primarily employed in various industries of manual labor, such as mining, farming, timbering, and manufacturing – all jobs that cause wear and tear on the human body, and that expose employees to a number of workplace injuries. Like many other places in the state and around the country, there is also a high rate of joblessness.21 Combine the two, and a place like Kermit becomes the destination of choice for a crime ring looking to make some quick money off people’s misery.
According to Salon magazine, a Sav-Rite pharmacy in Kermit was nothing more than a pill mill, a front for corrupt doctors and pharmacies to give out prescribed medication without a legitimate medical purpose. A customer would pay up and walk away with a supply of OxyContin, Vicodin, or some other powerful opioid-based narcotic. Despite Kermit being in “the poorest, most remote corner of southwest West Virginia,” people would drive in from everywhere on the Eastern Seaboard to score some pills. Maybe some of them had medical concerns that warranted a prescription but didn’t have the insurance to pay for it; maybe some of them just wanted to get high.
Whatever their reasons, there was a very thriving prescription drug ring going on in Kermit. The Sav-Rite there, and another one 10 miles away, gave out nearly 3.2 million cases of hydrocodone in 2006, enough for every single person living in the entire state of West Virginia. Across the rest of the country, the average for that same year was 97,000.
If Baltimore is the heroin capital of the United States, then tiny little Kermit, writes Salon, was not only “the pill-popping capital” of the country, it was “the ground zero of the prescription drug epidemic.” When federal agents raided the Sav-Rite store in Kermit, the cash drawers couldn’t even close for all the money they contained.22
The Sav-Rite there, and another one 10 miles away, gave out nearly 3.2 million cases of hydrocodone in 2006, enough for every single person living in the entire state of West Virginia.
But the problem facing law enforcement is that even when an operation like the one in Kermit is closed down, another springs up.
The conditions that exist in Kermit, West Virginia, Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and everywhere else in the urban or rural Northeast, remain the same:
There will always be a market for trading in illegal prescription pills and heroin, which is music to the ears of drug traffickers, whether those traffickers are organized crime members driving trucks with hidden compartments or unscrupulous doctors raking in cash from selling medication to despairing and oblivious patients. In small, forgotten places like Kermit, West Virginia, people used to joke about “pillbillies,” writes Salon, but no one is laughing anymore.
This has led to what Vice News calls “the golden age of drug trafficking.” Diplomats and top law enforcement officials gathered in April 2016 to talk about various ways to break up drug smuggling around the world, with a particular eye cast on the operations of the Sinaloa cartel.23 Their meeting location was the United Nations headquarters in New York. Slate writes of how New York City was chosen as the location for the intergovernmental organization, because there was a desire to seek out “the capital of the world.”24 It is that same desire that made New York the proverbial head of the hydra, one that spits out heroin and other drugs across the American Northeast and that has corrupted and poisoned thousands of lives across the region.