The wreckage can be seen across the Twin Cities — from the Anoka County gathering where parents told stories of death and addiction, to the Scott County courthouse, where a 20-year-old pregnant addict was sentenced to jail this month.
Deangelo Curtis measured his life’s work in kilos and ounces, and the year he turned 27, the scales were turning in his favor. The young St. Paul gangster sat atop a multimillion-dollar heroin boom sweeping Minnesota — the point man for an international drug cartel that linked the poppy fields of Mexico with the streets of the Twin Cities.
He called himself “King Kong.”
To the agents watching from the shadows, Curtis was also a case study in the economics of Minnesota’s new heroin trade: A highly structured trafficking operation that has spawned a new market of middle-class suburban users and delivers a product so pure that young Minnesotans are willing to risk their lives for the high of it.
Today, the wreckage can be seen across the Twin Cities — from the Anoka County gathering where parents told stories of death and addiction, to the Scott County courthouse, where a 20-year-old addict, pregnant with her first child, was sentenced to jail this month. The number of heroin deaths in the Twin Cities has tripled since 2011, to 63 last year. Hospital emergency rooms recorded 3,500 visits from panicked heroin users in 2011, and prosecutors say court dockets are crowded with heroin possession cases.
“What you are seeing is a Mexican cartel … creating a business model that is ingenious and cornering the market on what is now an epidemic,” said Dan Moren, head of Minnesota operations for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
By marketing heroin for as little as $10 a dose, in a powder form that users can snort or smoke rather than inject, the cartels have developed an entirely new market of users who might once have been frightened off by the drug’s sordid reputation. At the same time, these customers have built up little tolerance for heroin’s devastating power, resulting in a rash of deaths by overdose.
Curtis was arrested in 2012 and sentenced to prison last year. Federal narcotics agents say he symbolized the breadth of a drug cartel that has created addicts from Vermont to California — but they also note that he was replaced instantly, one small player in a vast organization, so that his arrest scarcely disrupted the flow of high-quality, low-cost heroin into the Twin Cities.
“You’re not going to ‘jail’ this problem away,” said Phil Prokopowicz, a veteran Dakota County prosecutor who has seen heroin cases become a weekly norm in his office. “This is a supply and demand equation in the distribution of poison.”
The new heroin boom has its roots in a successful anti-drug campaign that, starting seven or eight years ago, began to restrict the availability of popular prescription opiates such as oxycodone. The Sinaloa cartel, Mexico’s largest and most feared smuggling federation, saw an opportunity and filled the gap. Mexico’s heroin production has doubled since 2005, according to the U.S. Justice Department, and Mexico now ranks No. 2 in the world behind Afghanistan in poppy production.
By 2011, federal drug analysts estimated that at least four of Mexico’s seven major Mexican trafficking organizations had wholesale distribution networks in Minneapolis-St. Paul. The dominant player was Sinaloa.
The cartel took a hit last month when its elusive co-leader, “El Chapo” Guzman, was finally arrested in a Mexican-U.S. sting. But narcotics agents say that a multibillion-dollar empire with an international distribution infrastructure is not going to be toppled by the capture of one of its czars.
By the time heroin reaches a young user in the Twin Cities, it will have been smuggled by wholesalers who operate with the efficiency of a FedEx logistical team and distributed by a retail operation as nimble as any pizza chain.
When agents in Minnesota look at a map of the United States, they don’t dwell on state borders. Instead, they try to see the country much the way a cartel leader would: corridors of opportunity and spheres of influence.
All along the U.S.-Mexico border, investigators say, cartels compete for gateways that lead to regional trade monopolies. DEA sources say the Sinaloa cartel controls the border in much of Arizona and California, dividing it into “plazas” that are operated by area gatekeepers. More than 80 percent of the heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine reaching Chicago, for example, is now controlled by the cartel, according to the DEA.
Once packages cross the border, the cartel’s mega-wholesalers in hub cities of the southwest — Tucson, Phoenix, Los Angeles — arrange to move them by semitrailer truck, car or bus. If a load is destined for Chicago, it is targeted for two predominant gangs — the Gangster Disciples and the Latin Kings, according to federal drug agents.
Along the way, the drugs are stored to evade detection by agents or drug-sniffing dogs. Ground coffee and axle grease are tough on a canine nose. An agent can search for hours trying to find the hidden switch that will pop open a truck bumper backfilled with bricks of powder.