They come from Edina, Eden Prairie and Golden Valley to buy drugs in the most crime-ridden blocks of north Minneapolis.
They trade cash for marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamines, and then are gone.
Last year, 56 percent of drug arrests in north Minneapolis were of people who live outside the area, according to an analysis by the Star Tribune of the nearly 1,400 drug-related cases in north Minneapolis last year. Of those, nearly one in seven arrests were residents from the city's affluent western suburbs. The arrests ranged from narcotics to possessing marijuana in a motor vehicle.
"They don't have the resources in suburban neighborhoods where they can find drugs readily, so naturally they go to poorer neighborhoods," said David Lewis, who has lived in north Minneapolis for 35 years.
Officers pulled over a 38-year-old Prior Lake woman near North Commons park last July and found marijuana inside the vehicle, according to police records. A 35-year-old man was arrested in the Shingle Creek neighborhood, half an hour from his home in Eagan, and charged with several counts of drug possession. Another was arrested for drug possession near Folwell Park, 25 miles south of his home in Ramsey.
North Minneapolis has dealt with a persistent blight of drugs and violence for decades, problems that have made it tougher to attract more affluent residents and a vibrant mix of businesses. Despite increased and smarter enforcement, drug dealing has evolved into a far more mobile and fast-paced business, making it harder to disrupt. Drug arrests continue to rise, and a growing number of suspects are being found with cocaine and such opiates as morphine and codeine in their system.
The thriving drug trade has worn out many North Side residents and frustrated police, who must quickly adapt to a rapidly evolving cat-and-mouse game with buyers and dealers.
"The majority of the arrests we are making, the buyers are really white males and females right now," said Minneapolis police inspector Mike Friestleben, who took over command of the North Side precinct after years of working the overnight shift in the district.
Locals spot trouble
North Minneapolis residents have little trouble spotting the outsiders who come in search of drugs.
"Their fancy cars and nervous demeanor usually give them away," Lewis said.
Standing a few feet away, William Cobb nodded in agreement.
"I could pull up to a store right now and get out and see two girls rolling a blunt," Cobb said.
For decades, north Minneapolis has been flooded with drugs transported from the western United States and Mexico and distributed by local gangs. The growing numbers of out-of-towners flocking to the North Side have made its already busy drug trade all the more complicated and transient, and the wake of violence harder to police.
Friestleben and others note that there are fewer established drug corners where young drug slingers stand day and night, peddling their product. These days, most deals are coordinated via text message, with potential buyers instructed to show up to a particular spot at a particular time.
"Most of the purchasing of drugs is done through getting the right cellphone number … of a person and meeting up with them somewhere," said Carol Falkowski, former director of the alcohol and drug abuse division at the Minnesota Department of Human Services. "The sale of drugs is all on the go."
Such deals, police say, are typically harder to follow, as dealers often send their customers to several locations before making the deal, so as to elude plainclothes detectives.
In one instance, Friestleben said, an undercover officer was forced to drive to seven different cities before the dealer agreed to meet him.
"With this new mobile society, there isn't the same one every day. They can blend into a quiet neighborhood, because the transaction is so fast," Friestleben said. "A good percentage of them are from other cities, including suburbs that are two to three rings out."
'Enemy … is fear'
The flourishing drug trade has brought with it violence and chaos that has been an enduring stain for the area.
"It gives the North Side a really unfair perception about what that community is about," said Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek, who began his career as a Minneapolis police officer working the North Side at the height of the crack epidemic in the 1980s. "There's no doubt that this drug trend fuels other North Side issues like violence."
The drug buyers also have changed since his days as a police officer on the North Side, he says, with many calling somewhere else home.
At a law enforcement conference last year on the explosion of heroin use in the Twin Cities, Minneapolis Police Chief Janeé Harteau talked about the changing demographics of drug users. "It's soccer moms and college students," she said at the time.
Residents have taken notice.
One North Side resident who declined to give his name said there are some days where "you can smell meth being cooked at least once a week."
"It's one of those problems that is so large, what are you gonna do? You can't call the police, they're not gonna get over here to see it," the resident said.
"The worst enemy of this neighborhood is fear," he said, frustration creeping into his voice.
U.S. Attorney Andy Luger said his office is going after a new strategy — going after smaller heroin dealers instead of waiting for bigger shipments. He is encouraging police to consider sending cases involving drug overdose deaths against dealers to his office instead of to a county prosecutor, because a federal conviction guarantees a longer sentence.
The realities of law enforcement highlight why it might be difficult for the North Side to slip from the grips of the drug trade.
"In some sense, society is more lenient with those who use, the buyers, and much harsher in terms of the sentencing on the ones who sell," Stanek said.