Investigators adapt tactics as drug distribution goes high-tech

Investigators adapt tactics as drug distribution goes high-tech

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GRAND FORKS — The drug dealing model hasn’t changed much over the years -- ship it, sort it, bag it, sell it.

What has changed is how dealers use technology to further their efforts, said Christopher Myers, U.S. attorney for the North Dakota District.

“As technology evolves, so does the business of drug trafficking,” said Myers, who has spent roughly two decades fighting drugs -- both as a prosecutor at the county, state and federal levels and as a North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation agent. “There is an increased use of the internet to purchase substances and have the substances shipped, whether it is by private carrier or U.S. mail, into North Dakota.”

The challenge is keeping up with drug traffickers’ ever-changing tactics, Grand Forks Police Lt. Brett Johnson said. Today, more cases include the use of electronics and online media, Johnson said.

“Obviously, there is still the traditional hand-to-hand, on-the-street-corner types of transactions, but I think more and more people are using electronic media,” the commander of Grand Forks’ Criminal Investigations Bureau said of drug dealing.

The challenge includes adapting to trends, following what drugs are popular and using information and technology to make North Dakota an undesirable place to deal, Myers said.

How drugs get here

Researchers estimate the illegal U.S. drug market is a $200 billion to $700 billion business -- and investigators say most of the drugs being sold here are coming from Mexico and South America. A National Drug Threat Assessment issued by the Drug Enforcement Administration said criminal organizations from Mexico “remain the greatest criminal drug threat to the United States.”

In fiscal year 2015, the U.S. Border Patrol confiscated more than 1.5 million pounds of marijuana, nearly 4,300 pounds of cocaine, more than 8,200 ounces of heroin and close to 6,400 pounds of meth in the southwest border sectors.

But illegal drugs are seeping through the northern border, too. In the same fiscal year, agents along the Canadian border seized 654 pounds of marijuana, 42 pounds of cocaine, 46 ounces of heroin and 11 pounds of meth at portals along the U.S. northern border.

Johnson agreed most of the illegals drugs circulating in North Dakota and western Minnesota tend to come across the southern border, though exactly where they originate is anyone’s guess, he said.

“I think it is probably common that a lot of it comes out of Mexico, but I don’t think it would be totally out of the realm of possibility that a portion of it comes out of Canada (and) from overseas,” he said.

Dealers and users transport drugs via mail, but the primary shipping method to North Dakota is over the road. Drugs tend to follow major highways and interstates before they get to dealers in the Midwest, Myers said. From there, the narcotics likely are divided up to sell to local customers.

Trying to beat detection, smugglers use new and countless techniques to conceal their contraband.

“Some (methods are) very sophisticated and some not,” Ryan Gilberg, the operations officer for the Grand Forks Sector of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, wrote in an email. “Examples of concealment methods include hidden compartments in vehicles, (hiding drugs) within legitimate merchandise and (covering it) with substances intended to mask smell.”

Hierarchy of dealing

Johnson compared the hierarchy of drug dealing to layers. It’s a well-documented pattern in court affidavits, including a Polk County case in which four men were charged with trafficking four ounces of cocaine and other drugs in northwestern Minnesota. Officers worked their way up from street-level dealers to the main distributor in Polk County.

“It’s just like any other organization,” Myers said. “They have distributors that receive the drugs here in North Dakota and they, in turn, distribute those to street-level traffickers who distribute it to the end user.”

Local law enforcement tend to focus on local drug dealers, while state and federal agents generally deal with large-scale, multijurisdictional, national and international dealers, Myers said. The goal is the same -- work up the chain of dealers with the hopes of finding the head of the operation.

Such was the case with Operation Denial, an international drug investigation launched after the 2015 fentanyl-related death of Bailey Henke, 18, of Grand Forks.

Local law enforcement from Grand Forks worked with Border Patrol agents and other federal agencies, including the U.S. Attorney’s Office, to prosecute several suspects, including Daniel Vivas Ceron, a Colombian man accused of being the leader of the international drug ring.

“Our job is to identify, target and dismantle the worst of the worst, the largest trafficking organizations in the country at the federal level,” Myers said.

Changing game

The types of drugs circulating in Grand Forks come in cycles, Johnson said. Meth is still prevalent and remains a large problem in North Dakota, according to Myers.

It used to be made in the state, but enforcement and laws passed by federal and state lawmakers have made it more difficult to obtain ingredients to make the drug, forcing dealers to look at other sources.

In Grand Forks, that meant addicts turned to synthetics, then prescription drugs before jumping to fentanyl, Johnson said.

“Fentanyl is still a big issue,” he said. “I wouldn’t say that it has completely run its course, but I think the one we battle the most is heroin and other opiates.”

Johnson’s opinion appears to be supported by national numbers from the DEA. In 2007, the National Drug Threat Assessment deemed cocaine the most threatening drug in the U.S., with 40 percent of the survey’s respondents reporting the drug as the greatest threat. Meth came in a close second with 35 percent. The threat of cocaine diminished in the 2010s, and by 2015, heroin was the greatest threat, according to roughly 37 percent of the respondents. Meth consistently has remained the second-most-threatening drug.

Just like any industry, large-scale drug operations focus on demand, Myers said.

“The demand right now is for opiates, heroin and fentanyl, so the market is responding in kind,” he said.

Johnson added that the number of distribution layers has shifted over the years.

With some drugs, those layers can be “very compressed,” he explained. “In other words, it didn’t have nearly as many layers, and people could get it right from the manufacturer, so to speak.”

Drug users and dealers have used the advancement of technology to further operations, Johnson said. In particular, they have made use of the dark web, a part of the internet that’s usually inaccessible to the general public. Popular search engines such as Google cannot be used to find dark websites, which are intentionally hidden to keep others from tracking online activity.

“They will order it a lot of times from overseas,” Johnson said, adding it’s difficult to track the origin of drugs ordered on the dark web. “They can get it direct, so that really changes things.”

Keeping up

The advancement of technology and its anonymity continues to be a challenge for prosecutors and law enforcement, Myers said.

“People can sit in their home, not have to go meet anybody and just order the substances online,” he said. “You don’t have to go to your local dealer on the corner. You can jump on your smartphone, order fentanyl and get it shipped to your house or P.O. box or your friend’s house.”

Investigators are trained to learn how drug dealers use that technology to their advantage, Johnson said. The Grand Forks Narcotics Task Force keeps up with evolving trends as well, he added.

He said law enforcement agencies work hard to maintain good relationships with other agencies so together they can take down dealers. Officers from all ranks share a passion to fight drug dealers, he said.

“I think we are fortunate that we are very big on teamwork and agencies coming together, and I think our drug task force is a big part of that,” he said.

In addition to working with other law enforcement agencies, the Border Patrol has adopted strategic plans and has added agents to task forces throughout the sector.

“Specifically in the Grand Forks sector, we have grown our K-9 program,” Gilberg wrote, adding K-9 teams “serve as a valuable resource to our state, local and tribal partners in the areas in which they work.”

There also has been a move to educate the public, Johnson said. Anti-drug groups in Grand Forks have produced videos warning of fentanyl use, and law enforcement agencies across the region have held forums to educate the public.

Myers gave credit to law enforcement in the Grand Forks area for taking down drug dealers, particularly during Operation Denial. He called the officers some of the best in the country, adding they work quickly to shut down drug rings in North Dakota and western Minnesota.

“As a law enforcement community, we are not going to stop targeting these large-scale operations that are distributing poison into our communities and killing our children,” he said.

April Baumgarten is a reporter for the Grand Forks Herald. Contact her at (701) 780-1248 or abaumgarten@gfherald.com. Follow her on Twitter @aprilbaumsaway.

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