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Officials: More Than 65 Heroin Distributors Charged Or Arrested In Bust Operation

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MINNEAPOLIS (AP/WCCO) – More than 65 people suspected of selling heroin have been arrested and about 2.5 kilograms of the drug are off the streets as part of a coordinated crackdown to rid Minnesota of the substance that has caused an alarming increase in deaths in recent years, authorities said Thursday.

U.S. Attorney for Minnesota Andy Luger said the arrests “struck at the heart” of international drug cartels that have been doing business in the state and will have a significant impact on the heroin trade in Minnesota, making communities safer. He said more arrests are expected.

“Make no mistake about it. Heroin is deadly, and we will not tolerate it in Minnesota,” Luger said as he announced the arrests.

Jack Riley, special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Midwest office, added: “We’ve punched organized crime right in the face.”

Earlier this year, preliminary numbers from the Minnesota Department of Health showed there were 290 heroin-related deaths in the state in the last 15 years. Ninety-eight people died last year alone.

Many other states have reported a rise in heroin use. And earlier this year, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder called the 45 percent increase in heroin overdose deaths between 2006 and 2010 an “urgent and growing public health crisis.” Authorities in Minnesota and nationwide have been trying to find solutions and educate the public about the risks of heroin and opiate-based prescription drugs in hopes of stopping addiction before it starts.

After an increase in heroin-related deaths and overdoses in 2012, the DEA stepped up its focus on heroin trafficking and began working with other law enforcement to link investigations that were previously thought to be unconnected, the DEA said. The operation that led to Thursday’s arrests, called Operation Exile, began in December.

“We’re not rolling over anymore,” Riley said. “We are going to connect the dots.”

Luger, who said combating heroin is a top priority for his office, said the crackdown also ushers in a new era of cooperation between state, federal and local law enforcement.

The DEA said some of the arrests happened in recent weeks, but the coordinated take-down began before dawn on Thursday and hundreds of officers were involved in the metro-area counties, as well as St. Louis and Olmsted counties.

In addition to the drugs seized, authorities also confiscated seven firearms and about $250,000 in alleged drug proceeds, the DEA said.

Riley said the heroin of today is different than it was five years ago. It’s cheaper, more potent and can be smoked or snorted so it appeals to people who don’t want to use needles.

He said most of the heroin in Minnesota and other parts of the Midwest comes from South America and is trafficked by drug cartels in Mexico. Authorities hope to use Thursday’s arrests to generate more leads.

“The work starts now,” Riley said. “We’re following leads out of the state down to the border. We are going to attack these organizations and do everything in our power to disrupt and dismantle them so that they can’t spread the poison on the streets of Minnesota.”

It’s news a local mother found especially pleasing.

“I think that’s hopeful,” said Chris Eaton, of Brooklyn Center.

For seven years, the state senator and Brooklyn Center mom has been without her artistic, outgoing daughter.

“You just don’t forget when you’re sitting at your house and a couple police officers come up to your door and say, ‘I’m sorry, your daughter is dead, she died of a heroin overdose,'”  Eaton said.

She says she hopes news like Thursday’s gets out, and  that more parents will know heroin is very real in Minnesota.

(TM and © Copyright 2014 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2014 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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