Heroin at Home: How does it get to Minnesota?

1:16 PM, Nov 13, 2013   |    comments
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GOLDEN VALLEY, Minn. - Heroin is a growing problem in Minnesota.

In Hennepin County alone, heroin-related overdose deaths have surpassed last year's numbers with two months still to go -- 43 deaths through October, opposed to 37 all of last year.

State health officials also report an increase in heroin-related overdose deaths throughout the state.

The vast majority of heroin in Minnesota comes through the southwest border from Mexico, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. Smugglers then take any number of routes up the massive interstate system, including Interstates 35 and 94.

"It's a never ending job. The job never changes," said Cpl. Joe Bunting with the Santa Cruz County Sheriff's Office in Arizona.

Nogales in Santa Cruz County is the busiest port of entry in Arizona with tens of thousands of people passing through there every day to and from Mexico.

"It may stage here a bit before it can go up to Tucson and Phoenix. And then from there, it's all over the country," said Bunting.

One of the first lines of defense is about an 18-foot high fence. From the center of town, it spans seven miles both east and west. That fence ends and after that is a crisscrossed steal shaped fence known as a "Normandy" fence with barbed wire near it.

U.S. Customs and Border Patrol also rely on technology like sensors and cameras that can notify agents if there is movement in the area when they are not around.

But smugglers are still able to get through the border.

While KARE 11 News interviewed Bunting atop a hill in a rural part of Santa Cruz County, the sheriff deputy noticed someone was watching the interview a few hundred yards away on the other side of the border.

"There's actually a guy standing on the outside looking at us," he said.

While looking into his binoculars, Bunting noticed two make-shift tents in two different locations with two different men underneath. He suspected they were spotters, also known as scouts working for the Mexican drug cartels.

"That means something somewhere is going to be crossing at some point. It may not be next hour or so, it may be later on," he suspected.

Law enforcement officers believe spotters essentially case the area for police and other people or things that could impede them from getting a shipment across. Bunting says they'll look for weaknesses in patrols and try to take advantage, including hiking through tough terrain.

"Because we're not there, they're running it through the hills," he said.

KARE 11 was set to ride along with U.S. Customs and Border Patrol during the first week in October, but because of the government shut down, the two-day shoot had to be cancelled.

A spokesperson says U.S. Border Patrol reports seizures have increased about 40 percent along the southwest border since 2010 and staffing levels have doubled since 2004.

Still smugglers get through.

It happens so frequently at David Lowell's ranch outside of Nogales that the 85-year-old man and his wife have armed themselves with guns and their property with cameras. Just a few months ago patrol officers arrested drug smugglers in his front yard.

"There was a lot of yelling. It's a little bit like the Wild West," said Lowell about the arrests on his property.

That's nothing compared to the several dead bodies he claims to have found on his land or even a severed head back in 2007 that a ranch employee found and brought to him.

"I looked in the bag and there was a fresh human head," he said.

The worst of the violence happened on his property in 2010 when border patrol agent Brian Terry was shot and killed, making national news.

The drug-running and violence continues north into Pinal County where along Interstate 8 in the Vekol Valley a rest stop isn't always the best place to stop.

"This particular area has a lot of violence in close proximity to it," said Lt. Matthew Thomas with the Pinal County Sheriff's Office. "We are literally 25 yards off a major interstate."

Several shootings and murders have happened here just off the freeway, whether it is law enforcement confronting drug smugglers or thieves known as rip crews trying to steal the dope from the Mexican cartels. 

"We're living this every day, and what we're living here is just the jumping off point. This is the start of everything," said Thomas.

He said smugglers are known to hike for days in this terrain, some are forced by the cartels to do so or their families back home will be killed.

It is why when night falls in Pinal County, often times the real work begins.

"We'll use darkness to our advantage to move into areas," said Sgt. Rory Skedel with the Pinal County Sheriff's Office.

KARE 11 rode along with Skedel and the Pinal County Swat Team for an overnight patrol in the middle of the desert.

Since smugglers use the cover of darkness, the swat team uses night vision goggles to drive into the desert, turning off all vehicle lights.

"It takes some getting used to," said Skedel while driving with his night vision goggles on.

Once the team gets into position, they noticed a vehicle driving back and forth several hundred feet away along the highway.

"This time of night, this area, it's suspicious behavior," he said.

It is suspicious because the vehicle is doing something similar to what cartels often do.

Officers call it "running heat." Smugglers drive up and down a roadway making sure it is safe to pick up a load of drugs just off the highway.

It turned out the vehicle that night was just lost, but on any given night deputies have the potential of catching thousands of dollars worth of drugs, including heroin. 

Yet even with their successes, officers admit they're outnumbered.

"Law enforcement only gets 5 to 8 percent, if we're lucky, of the amount of drugs coming into the country," said Sgt. Christopher Lapre with the Pinal County Sheriff's Office.

Bottom line, they say they need more help.

"You have four guys out here working to combat a couple hundred miles," he said. "What are three guys going to do?"

Especially since they say the cartels are relentless and learn from their mistakes.

"If an enforcement action is taking on them and we take off a load of drugs, they will then pull the reports on that and they will look at how we caught them so they can make an adjustment to not get caught the next time."

"If Minnesota thinks they don't have these guys in Minnesota, they are sadly mistaken," said Thomas referring to the Mexican drug cartels.      

(Copyright 2013 by KARE. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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