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February 27, 2009

Drug busts and records

 It seems that with every drug bust, the cops set a record.

It happened again a week ago when Baltimore Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld (left) held a news conference, stood behind "bricks" of cocaine -- 90 pounds worth -- and called it the biggest cocaine bust in the history of the Baltimore Police Department.

He might be right. I haven't researched all the way back to the 1800s, but it's large bust and he should be proud of his officers. Undercover detectives usually toil in obscurity, and most of their arrests are made without the benefit of piles of drugs that look good on television news and in newspaper front pages.

This was a record in the same way that a baseball player sets a record for the most homeruns by a left-handed, one-eyed shortstop with a bum leg playing in night games on artificial turf batting against a right-handed pitcher over 6 feet tall on three days rest coming off rehab after beating his wife (if they don't keep this record, they should).

Bealefeld's arrest was a record in drug cases in which his officers worked alone, without help from federal agencies. Nevermind that the arrest back in 2004 when a cops, acting after a tip from federal immigration officials, help seize 338 pounds of cocaine. I took a snarky view of this in my column in part because every time cops hold a news conference and thank the dozen or so other agencies that might have sneezed during the investigation, and therefore deserve to have their leader crowd the stage at the announcement, don't get mentioned, we get a call of complaint.

I mean, what's the use of a city cop making a drug bust if the assistant to the assistant agent in charge of the Dundalk outpost of the Baltimore field office of the FBI doesn't get a plug in print? Officials always brag about how they all worked together when in the back of the room they're fighting over who gets to stand in front of the microphone and take credit. Now, it's amusing that when city police act alone, they brag about it being a record bust. I can see the feds snickering in their offices at the 90 pounds Bealefeld was lording over -- "when we helped, they got 338 pounds of drugs."

But we all play along in the game. The cops call and the media comes. It's a great picture -- cops and drugs. See, they are doing something about the problem, and officials saying its a report helps propel the story into print and onto TV. Forget that when pressed for details about the case, the cops refused to budge. They even refused to give out the name of the suspect, saying the case was still under investigation, even though that very day he was standing in a U.S. District Courtroom across town being arraigned. The police didn't lie, but their statements certainly led reporters to believe that charges had yet to be filed in the case.

What was missed? Details about the suspected drug operation, for one, but also a slightly embarrassing revelation that city cops had the prime suspect in their sights back in 2007, only to get pulled out of West Baltimore to combat crime in East Baltimore, where homicides were spiking and the news reports were swirling. The cops got back to their old haunts in January to find their suspect still working.

The point is that the pictures of the cops and drugs were more important to the police than the story. Image over substance. Records set to made up rules that make it appear the cops made the biggest drug bust in city history when in fact they didn't -- they just made the biggest drug bust in their own history. It all obscures the real story and the real questions -- after years of record drug busts, we don't seem any better off today than we were before. It would be a prouder day if the commissioner could stand in front of empty pallets and proclaim the drug war over. But not sure what kind of record that would be.

Anyway, here's a partial list of big drug busts in Baltimore by various law enforcement agencies: 

 

June 1991 -- Maryland State Police seize 71.5 pounds of cocaine after a trooper stops a car for speeding in Elkton. The drugs were in the trunk of a 1988 Cadillac.

October 1996 -- State police seize 11.6 pounds of cocaine during a car stop on the U.S. 13 bypass on the Eastern Shore. The drugs were hidden in a false compartment in a van and was then listed as the "third largest on the nation's highways." In March of the same year, a trooper found 14.2 pounds of cocaine on the John F. Kennedy Highway.

March 1997 -- Baltimore police, with the FBI and DEA, seize a ton of cocaine from a warehouse and broke up a drug organization with ties to South and Central America.

December 2001 -- The U.S. Customs Service seize 4,092 tons of marijuana concealed in compartment built into 86 pieces of furniture shipped to Baltimore's port from Mexico.

February 2004 -- City police and the federal immigration officials seize 338 pounds of cocaine after receiving a tip it was en route to Baltimore from Guyana, a county on the northern coast of South America.

March 2006 -- Maryland State police seize 170 pounds of cocaine during a car stop on I-95 in Cecil County. The drugs were packed in suitcases and coolers inside a 2000 Buick LeSabre.

February 2009 -- Baltimore police seize 90 pounds of cocaine from a house in Southwest Baltimore during a raid.

Even as I write this, the Maryland U.S. Attorney's Office sent over a release of a drug bust that involves suspects from three states including Maryland:

WASHINGTON – Today Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., announced the arrest of more than 750 individuals on narcotics-related charges and the seizure of more than 23 tons of narcotics as part of a 21-month multi-agency law enforcement investigation known as “Operation Xcellerator.” The Attorney General was joined in announcing the current results of Operation Xcellerator by DEA Acting Administrator Michele M. Leonhart.

Today, 52 individuals in California, Minnesota and Maryland were arrested as part of Operation Xcellerator, which targeted the Sinaloa Cartel, a major Mexican drug trafficking organization, through coordination between federal, state and local law enforcement, as well as cooperation with authorities in Mexico and Canada.

In Maryland three indictments have been returned as part of Operation Xcellerator, charging 29 defendants with conspiracy to distribute cocaine; eight defendants are also charged with distribution of and possession with intent to distribute narcotics, including cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine, announced United States Attorney for the District of Maryland Rod J. Rosenstein. The indictments also seek forfeiture of guns and $7 million in cash. Fifteen defendants charged in two of the indictments were arrested last year and three of those have already pleaded guilty, admitting that from March 2006 to August 2008, the members of that conspiracy distributed over 400 kilograms of cocaine in Baltimore. Fourteen defendants charged in the third indictment, which was unsealed today, were arrested and are expected to have their initial appearances today in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt, Maryland.  If convicted, the defendants face a minimum mandatory sentence of 10 years in prison and a maximum penalty of life in prison and a $4 million fine, for conspiracy to distribute cocaine.

The Sinaloa Cartel is responsible for bringing multi-ton quantities of narcotics, including cocaine and marijuana, from Mexico into the United States through an enterprise of distribution cells in the United States and Canada.  The Sinaloa Cartel is also believed to be responsible for laundering millions of dollars in criminal proceeds from illegal drug trafficking activities. Individuals indicted in the cases are charged with a variety of crimes, including: engaging in a continuing criminal enterprise by violating various felony provisions of the Controlled Substances Act; conspiracy to import controlled substances; money laundering; and possession of an unregistered firearm.

“International drug trafficking organizations pose a sustained, serious threat to the safety and security of our communities,” said Attorney General Holder. “As the world grows smaller and international criminals step up their efforts to operate inside our borders, the Department of Justice will confront them head on to keep our communities safe.”

To date, Operation Xcellerator has led to the arrest of 755 individuals and the seizure of approximately $59.1 million in U.S. currency, more than 12,000 kilograms of cocaine, more than 16,000 pounds of marijuana, more than 1,200 pounds of methamphetamine, more than 8 kilograms of heroin, approximately 1.3 million pills of Ecstasy, more than $6.5 million in other assets, 149 vehicles, 3 aircraft, 3 maritime vessels and 169 weapons.   

“We successfully concluded the largest and hardest hitting operation to ever target the very violent and dangerously powerful Sinaloa drug cartel,” said DEA Acting Administrator Michele M. Leonhart.  “From Washington to Maine, we have disrupted this cartel’s domestic operations—arresting U.S. cell heads and stripping them of more than $59 million in cash—and seriously impacted their Canadian drug operations as well.  DEA will continue to work with our domestic and international partners to shut down the operations of the Sinaloa cartel and stop the ruthless violence the traffickers inflict on innocent citizens in the U.S., Mexico and Canada.”

The 21-month investigation began shortly after the culmination of Operation Imperial Emperor, an investigation which resulted in the indictment of Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force (OCDETF)-designated Consolidated Priority Organizational Target (CPOT) Victor Emilio Cazarez-Salazar, believed to be a command and control leader within the Sinaloa Cartel. CPOT Victor Cazarez-Salazar remains a fugitive.

Posted by Peter Hermann at 6:08 AM | | Comments (0)
        

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About Peter Hermann
Peter Hermann started covering news for The Baltimore Sun in 1990, first in Anne Arundel County and, starting in 1994, reporting on the Baltimore Police Department. In 2001, he was assigned to Jerusalem as the Baltimore Sun's Middle East correspondent. He returned in 2005 as an assistant city editor overseeing crime coverage. In 2008, Peter returned to the beat as a daily reporter and blogger. A recent BBC report featured him in a segment on the harsh realities of covering crime in Baltimore.

Coverage will focus on crime trends, problems in neighborhoods in the city and elsewhere, profiles of victims and police officers and try to offer readers a fresh perspective on one of the most vexing issues facing Baltimore and its future.



Contributing to this blog is Justin Fenton, who joined The Sun in 2005 and has covered the Baltimore City Police Department and the criminal justice system since 2008. His work includes an investigation into Cal Ripken Jr.’s minor league baseball stadium deal with his hometown of Aberdeen, a three-part series chronicling a ruthless con woman, coverage of the killing of five Amish children at a schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Pa., and a job swap with a British crime reporter to explore differences in crime-fighting. A special report looking into how city police handle rape cases led to sweeping reforms that changed the way sexual assaults are investigated in Baltimore. He was recognized as the best reporter in Baltimore by the City Paper in 2010 and by Baltimore Magazine in 2011.
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