Sixty-five suspected heroin traffickers in Minnesota have been arrested in a statewide sweep, the United States Attorney's Office said Thursday.
Nicknamed Operation Exile, the arrests began early Thursday morning led by a coalition of local, state and federal law enforcement officers in seven counties across the state, U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger said. More arrests and charges are coming, he added.
"Today we've made it clear to those who want to sell heroin, this deadly powder in Minnesota, that we will stop them," Luger said.
Luger said the arrests will make it more difficult to smuggle heroin into Minnesota. Much of it comes from Mexico.
"We have struck at the heart of the international cartels that bring heroin to Minnesota," Luger said.
"We've punched organized crime right in the face," added Special Agent-in-Charge Jack Riley.
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Minnesota has struggled with some of the cheapest and purest heroin in the country. Heroin deaths also appear to be rising. In Hennepin County alone, the sheriff's department said 56 people died of heroin overdoses last year, and the county is already on pace to lose more people in 2014.
Riley said previous anti-drug enforcement efforts have been hamstrung by the lack of cooperation between agencies.
"We're not rolling over anymore, and we are going to connect the dots, we're going to share information," Riley said. "We're going to start on the streets and work these cases down to the border and to Central and South America if we need to."
Riley said the intelligence gathered today by these 65 arrests will help law enforcement put together an organizational chart of the cartels that traffic heroin into the state. He said they're prepared to take the enforcement actions as high up as they can.
The announcement of the arrests comes on the heels of a recent trip that U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar took to Mexico to pressure the government to step up efforts to go after cartels that are smuggling heroin into the United States.
Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek has led one of the state's most aggressive efforts against heroin, and has been a main supporter of legislation making Narcan, an anti-overdose drug, more widely available.
Stanek, though, said that this is not a problem that arrests alone can solve.
"Enforcement is one aspect, but you also get prevention through education," he said.
Stanek also held what he called an emergency town meeting about rising heroin use Thursday night in Brooklyn Park.
Doctors, law enforcement officials and treatment professionals addressed the audience of around 200, most of them community college students about the dangers of heroin, and what authorities are doing to stop its spread.
Stanek said a record 56 people died of heroin overdoses in Hennepin County last year. Already through mid March, 17 people died. Not yet included in that number was Jonathan Duffy.
The 19 year old died of a heroin overdose just last Sunday. His father, John Duffy, said the educational meeting was positive, but that it didn't go far enough.
"We need to get on the radio, we need to get on the TV , we need to have radio talk shows, we need police talking, we need doctors talking, stop hiding this game, this war on drugs is not working, and a lot of people don't know what's going on."