Most of the 28 people were arrested Tuesday, four are still at large. The arrests resulted from a three-year investigation by a long list of cooperating agencies at the local, state, and federal levels.
Some members of a local drug task force were deputized as federal agents, which enabled them to cross jurisdictional boundaries to go after the dealers.
Officials say the network of dealers sold between 40 and 60 kilograms of cocaine and crack cocaine in the Duluth-Superior area over the past three years.
U.S. Attorney Rachel Paulose says the ringleader was Bernard Vann, nick-named "Mooch," who operated a clothing and beauty supply business in downtown Duluth as a front for his drug dealing. She says he dealt in big quantities of drugs.
"Vann allegedly provided to a single drug distributor three kits of crack cocaine per day," Paulose told a mid-afternoon press conference. "Just to put that into perspective for you, a kit contains approximately 350 individual doses of the drug, with each dose selling for about $20 on the street."
Paulose says her office is determined to go after drug traffickers like Vann, who she says are branching out from big cities to smaller towns and rural areas.
"We believe they are doing so in the hopes of tapping new markets, while flying below the radar of local law enforcement," Paulose says. "But because of the cooperation and communication among local, state, and federal law enforcement as exhibited in this case, drug traffickers and finding fewer and fewer safe havens from which to conduct their illegal businesses."
Federal and local officials say it could be quieter in Duluth for awhile. According to Bernard Zapor, special agent in charge at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, drug dealers are often involved in other types of crimes.
"You're going to have stolen property crimes, you're going to have fraud, you're going to have identity theft," Zapor says. "Firearms are a main mechanism because narcotics trafficking is a crime of violence. A lot of the smaller vice crimes also tend to get resolved in big efforts like this."
Zapor calls the network of dealers a syndicate, and he says the arrests will put a big dent in the drug infrastructure in the Duluth-Superior area.
"When you dismantle that, that will have an impact on some of the demand because the supply's not there. Unfortunately with narcotics trafficking, someone will come back to replace them, and these task force officers will be ready for that," Zapor says.
Those arrested are scheduled to appear in federal court in Minneapolis.
Potential sentences for the crimes they're accused of range from 20 years to life in prison.