Federal Agents And Local Police Drop In On Suspected Addicts And Encourage Them To Get Help.
Armed with the client lists of known heroin traffickers Thursday, federal agents and local police held a citywide drug intervention.
Teams of U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents and Charlotte-Mecklenburg police visited more than 30 homes and confronted 10 suspected heroin users.
The objective, said John Emerson, the DEA's assistant special agent in charge for North Carolina, was "to let them know we know who they are," to find out more about their suppliers, and to "offer them an alternative to using heroin by seeking treatment."
Three weeks ago, the teams made their first sweep. Emerson said three of the 12 users contacted that day are now in treatment.
Ross, an addict the agents confronted Thursday at his east Charlotte home, told the Observer he could get "black-tar" heroin at any time of the day, 20 minutes after making a call. Traffickers would either drop it off at his house or meet him at a south Charlotte shopping center. It was always a public place, he said.
Mexican drug traffickers have turned Charlotte into the state's black-tar hub. Heroin overdoses and deaths in the city have more than tripled since last year. Local officials are particularly concerned that gangs, most connected to Mexican drug organizations, are aggressively targeting teenagers.
In 2008, there were eight heroin overdoses in Charlotte and three deaths, according to police statistics. This year, with a month and a half to go, there are already 33 overdoses and 10 deaths. The amount of heroin seized has quadrupled.
On Thursday, 20 DEA agents and officers broke into seven teams in search of suspected heroin users. Their names were collected from various investigations over the past year.
For four rainy hours, officers knocked on doors at all types of homes in Cornelius, east Charlotte and south Charlotte. They told users they were not being arrested. And they encouraged them to seek treatment at the McLeod Addictive Disease Center in Charlotte, which agreed to alert authorities if the addicts showed up for care.
"We're not going to arrest our way out of a problem," Emerson said. "And the addiction needs to be treated somehow."
Casey Viser, a criminal defense attorney who defends people charged with drug crimes, said he supports the intent of the intervention program, but questioned how it's being run.
"Simply because you're on a list that the authorities have obtained from a suspected criminal doesn't in and of itself mean anything," he said. "I think the officers are walking on a fine line based solely on that kind of information approaching citizens and conducting a criminal investigation - whether or not the purpose they're maintaining is to help people."
Joe Kuhns, a criminal justice professor at UNC Charlotte, said he understands the privacy concerns, but said if those individuals were on traffickers' lists, it gave police a reason to approach them.
"They have two options," he said. "Police could go to the house and make an arrest and put people in jail, or they can go to the house and encourage them to seek treatment. Given the two options, I like what they're doing because we have too many people in jail ... and that's an expensive cost."
Delivered like a pizza
Black-tar heroin, made from poppies in western Mexico, gets its name from its color and texture. Police attribute its rise to its cheaper price and the well-run networks developed by Mexican cartels.
Driving to one Thursday stop, DEA special agent Jeff Ferris said the rings are set up like legitimate businesses. They have divisions of labor, sales goals and contingency plans in case one of the distributors is arrested.
An undercover Charlotte police officer riding with Ferris said the rings have the perfect business model: "Sell it for half the price of traditional heroin, deliver it like a pizza, and deliver it in neighborhoods where it's not expected."
The names on the officers' lists came from such recent investigations as "Operation Dirty Girl 3."
On July 30, police and DEA officers arrested Carlos Roman Villanueva and charged him with selling black-tar heroin to clients throughout south Charlotte, including in Ballantyne. Villanueva ran his operation from his bar less than a half mile from Starmount Elementary School, according to court records.
Police say they caught him after he purchased more than $22,500 worth of heroin from a supplier.
Addicts say black tar is easy to find in Charlotte. At $12.50 a dose, it's about half the price of other available forms.
'A fight for your life'
When officers knocked on Ross' door Thursday afternoon, dogs started barking before the door opened.
"Are you a heroin user, sir?" an officer asked.
"I used to be," said Ross.
Ross, 30, who didn't want his last name published to protect his identity, said a girlfriend introduced him to the drug. He was already on painkillers, but heroin was cheaper and easier to find.
He met a Latino trafficker through a friend.
Before he knew it, he said, he was buying from five different sellers - - up to 10 bags a day.
"Whatever I could afford," said Ross, who told the officers he was already receiving methadone treatment. "My day revolved around getting that next fix.
"It's definitely a battle. It's a fight for your life."
November 13, 2009
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