A statewide crackdown on heroin distributors launched this week has resulted in more than 65 arrests in the Twin Cities metro area and the seizure of more than $250,000 in cash, marking a major policy shift in how high-level drug investigations are conducted, federal prosecutors and county attorneys said Thursday.

The raids, carried out by federal and state drug agents in the Twin Cities, Duluth and Rochester, are the first coordinated efforts by federal and state drug agents to systematically crack down on the operations of Mexican drug cartels since the traffickers began flooding Minnesota with near-pure heroin over the past four years.

“Today, law enforcement has dealt a significant blow to those who are bringing heroin to Minnesota,” U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger said, reading from a prepared statement at a news conference attended by more than two dozen county attorneys, sheriffs and federal law enforcement officials. “Today, we have made it clear to those who want to sell this deadly powder that we will stop them.”

Last year, at least 63 people in the Twin Cities died from heroin overdoses, triple since 2011. So far this year, there have been 17 deaths in Hennepin County, ahead of last year’s pace. In 1999, only three such deaths were reported in the metro area. Local hospital emergency rooms treated more than 3,500 heroin overdoses in 2011, the latest year with figures available. Minneapolis police say their officers seized heroin at a rate of nearly once a day in 2013.

The raids, which began early this week and continued through Thursday afternoon, were directed by the U.S. attorney’s office and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. The breadth of the investigation, dubbed Operation Exile, represents a philosophical shift under Luger’s direction when it comes to choosing which drug cases in Minnesota will now be tried in federal court.

Luger’s predecessor, Todd Jones, had directed federal prosecutors to concentrate mainly on interstate conspiracy cases, leaving some federal and state drug agents concerned that large-scale drug cases of heroin and methamphetamine were being tried in state courts, where sentences are lighter.

Strategy questioned

Drug agents questioned that strategy, saying there was still immense value in penetrating drug smuggling networks by turning low-level dealers into informants who could lead them to the major traffickers across the region or country.

Luger, who assumed office in mid-February, quickly made it clear in private conversations with federal prosecutors, county attorneys and drug agents that tackling heroin smuggling operations dominated by the Sinaloa Cartel, based in southwest Mexico, would require a statewide, coordinated response at all levels.

Luger acknowledged the shift in strategy in his prepared remarks Thursday.

“Because of the hard work of the DEA, today’s operation ushers in a new era of cooperation between state, local and federal law enforcement,” he said.

DEA special agent Jack Riley, who oversees a five-state region that includes Minnesota, characterized the operation as indicative of the realities that face agents as they attempt to dismantle the state’s heroin network, which is primarily controlled by cartel distributors who ship large loads from Chicago almost daily. Citing the logistical expertise of the cartels, Riley promised to provide the resources to “disrupt and dismantle” the heroin networks in the state.

‘A great day’

“This is a great day for the good guys in Minnesota. We’ve punched organized crime in the face,” Riley said. “We’re not rolling over anymore, and we’re going to work this down to the borders, into Central and South America. I guarantee that out of this we will be able to put an organizational chart together on who’s controlling the heroin in Minnesota.”

Those arrested represent a wide range of positions in the Twin Cities’ heroin distribution network. For example, on Tuesday, agents raided a house in Columbia Heights and found about three-quarters of a pound of heroin and about $15,000 linked to a distributor who was charged in federal court the next day. Before the arrest, an informant described the distributor’s direct ties to a Mexican cartel, according to a criminal complaint. The source, working with the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office said he would typically buy about $3,000 worth of heroin every two days from the distributor, according to documents.

In another case, a Minneapolis man long considered a prime target was finally charged in federal court Tuesday. DEA agents said they had tried to get Anthony Morrison charged a year ago, but were initially turned down because he was not considered to be significant enough.

An “emergency town hall” meeting to discuss community education efforts on how to address heroin and prescription painkiller usage was scheduled for Thursday night at the North Hennepin Community College in Brooklyn Park.