WASHINGTON – Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar is pressing Mexican law enforcement authorities to acknowledge responsibility for spiking numbers of heroin and sex-trafficking incidents that increasingly are ravaging neighborhoods and families across the United States — including Minnesota.
In a series of meetings in Mexico City, Klobuchar is joining North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp and Cindy McCain, wife of Arizona Sen. John McCain, in urging the Mexican government to intensify its work on both sex trafficking and the illegal movement of heroin into the United States.
“One of the things we can acknowledge when we’re meeting with them is that we have our own issues on this,” said Klobuchar in an interview from Mexico. “We’re not just telling them, ‘Do this or do that.’ We are saying we have our own issues.”
The domestic heroin crisis is escalating rapidly, particularly in the Midwest. Hospital emergency department visits for heroin in the Twin Cities nearly tripled from 2004 to 2011. The number of heroin deaths in the metro area has tripled since 2011, to 63 last year.
American law enforcement agents say that extremely sophisticated criminal organizations are moving from Mexico to hubs like Chicago or Minneapolis. There, they hide in immigrant-heavy neighborhoods, peddling cheaper, purer heroin to a growing population of customers who often are already addicted to painkillers.
“It’s really been fueled by prescription drug abuse,” said Jack Riley, special agent-in-charge of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s Chicago field division, which includes Minnesota. “The heroin today is much different than it used to be. It’s purer and more affordable and is ingested through smoking and snorting. … It’s really fueled a completely different user base.”
Klobuchar, who has worked on both sex trafficking and heroin issues since she was Hennepin County attorney, said she is optimistic that through the Mexico meetings with high-level officials, including the attorney general, changes may be coming. She said Mexico is professionalizing its police force and revamping its records system to better sync with U.S. law enforcement agencies.
Riley confirmed that the sharing of drug cartel information between the two countries has vastly improved. The DEA seized 382 pounds of heroin in 2012 from the Midwest region, including Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota and North Dakota.
“Fifteen years ago, we couldn’t share … information with them,” he said. “But now we’re able to work shoulder to shoulder.”
Klobuchar is also the lead sponsor of federal legislation that would devote more resources to prosecutors tackling sex trafficking of minors, to ensure the young victims get the support they need. Her legislation, called the Stop Exploitation Through Trafficking Act, is supported by a handful of Republicans and is modeled after “safe harbor” laws already on the books in Minnesota. This week’s congressional delegation trip to Mexico comes during a two-week Easter and Passover recess.
Klobuchar said Monday the message to Mexican authorities from the three American women — Heitkamp, a Democrat, has worked on the issue in North Dakota, and McCain, a Republican, is also urging federal legislation — was to stay the course.
“On sex trafficking, there has been a major shift in people acknowledging this problem. It reminds me of domestic violence 20 years ago,” Klobuchar said. “With sex trafficking, people were just closing their eyes to it. They were willing to go talk about child pornography … but they were closing their eyes to sex trafficking.”
McCain works on trafficking issues from Arizona. She called the Mexican government “reform-minded.”
“Living on the border the way I do, this issue of human trafficking, both sex trafficking and labor trafficking, is very important,” she said. “We have numbers of people coming across the border and dying as a result … after being stuffed in a car. I think things are changing.”