DULUTH – Federal drug officials announced Wednesday they will ramp up their presence here, in an attempt to disrupt mid- to high-level traffickers in a region ravaged by meth, heroin and prescription opioids.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration will open the new Duluth post this year, embedding two DEA agents and two federally deputized officers into a regional drug task force that operates around the North Shore area.

"By adding DEA agents to the Lake Superior Drug Task Force, our ultimate goal is to save American lives," said Omaha Division Special Agent in Charge Richard Salter Jr., speaking at Duluth City Hall. With the added officers, in collaboration with local and tribal law enforcement, the task force will aim to expand regional drug busts to prosecute national traffickers and ultimately reach the supply chains in China, Mexico and Colombia, he said.

In Minnesota, tracking with the rest of the country, overdoses from heroin and prescription pills rose to historic levels over the past decade. In 2018, 331 people died from opioids across the state, a 22% decrease from 2017, yet still drastically higher than before the epidemic hit 10 years ago.

Salter blamed the increase on doctors overprescribing medications in recent years. He said the Duluth area has a higher overdose rate than any other part of Minnesota.

"Duluth and our surrounding area — we are not immune to the ravages," said Duluth Mayor Emily Larson. "Heroin and opioid drug overdose deaths have more than doubled in the past few years. The commitment from the DEA to expand in Duluth offers new hope to this community and this region."

Duluth Lt. Jeff Kazel, commander of the Lake Superior Drug and Violent Crime Task Force, called the added DEA agents "much-needed help" in the area's war against meth and opioids. "As many of you know, this region as a whole has one of the highest per capita opioid-related death rates in the state," he said. "Opioids and methamphetamine continue to be the driving catalyst for crime and overdose deaths."

Duluth Police Chief Mike Tusken also spoke to the prevalence of opioid overdoses. Since his officers began carrying Narcan — a drug that can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose — in 2016, they've saved nearly 90 lives, Tusken said.

Last year, a Star Tribune report showed how cartels have flooded the state with a drug that's cheaper and purer than ever before. More than half the 308 federal drug cases filed in Minnesota from 2013 to 2017 were for meth.

A new wave of methamphetamine has saturated the state, much of the product now being imported from Mexican cartels. More than 2 tons of meth was confiscated in 2018 in Minnesota, according to state and federal law enforcement officials. Nearly 900 pounds of that came from federal investigations, with 2019 seizures on track to be higher, Kenneth Solek, assistant special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration's Minneapolis division, said last March.

In Duluth on Wednesday, First Assistant U.S. Attorney Anders Folk said the drug is continuing to flow into Minnesota in massive quantities "with high purity and cheap prices." In response, his office has doubled the number of prosecutors working on drug trafficking cases, he said.

So far this year in Minnesota, the U.S. Attorney's Office has charged 103% more criminal defendants in meth trafficking cases and 77% more in heroin cases than in 2018, Folk said. That includes a 15-count indictment of a heroin ring operating out of the Duluth area announced last week.

Folk said the added resources from the DEA will help stop more drug traffickers from infiltrating Minnesota. "Our shared mission is to create a safer community for all Minnesota residents," he said.

Salter said the DEA hasn't had agents assigned to Duluth since the 1990s. The new DEA post will be permanent, he said, and the DEA is recruiting the agents now.

Andy Mannix • 612-673-4036