Heroin Homeland: Drug cartels in the Bronx

The Drug Enforcement Administration says drug cartels are using the Bronx as a heroin mill. News 12's Eric Steltzer reports on the problem in this "Heroin Homeland" special report.

New York City has a population of more than 8.4 million people, with over 20 million addicts walking the streets in the surrounding tri-state area.

"New York City is ground zero for heroin trafficking in the United States," says James Hunt, special agent in charge of the DEA for New York.

He says the Bronx is being used as a heroin mill by gang members and Mexican drug cartels for massive operations. The Bronx's easy access to highways makes it a prime area for setting up shop. It's right off I-95, a short distance from Route 80, which crosses the country. A highway can be reached within a few minutes from most sections of the borough.

The largest drug bust in New York state history occurred in May 2015. It involved the seizure of 50 pounds of heroin and $24 million in cash taken from the Fieldston section of the Bronx. The drugs had a street value of about $50 million.

News 12 spoke with New York City special narcotics prosecutor Bridget Brannon, who says the bust had an immediate impact, affecting supply in Long Island and New Jersey. She says that law enforcement's goal is to control the supply while focusing on prevention and treatment. That's made more difficult when dealing with the violent cycles of the cartel, which has a seemingly endless cash supply and, like in the Fieldston case, the willingness to risk it all to make money and get people addicted.

There have been numerous busts since Fieldston, with the DEA helping build cases from the ground and sky, and the special prosecutor's office eventually putting traffickers behind bars.

The city uses wiretaps to track down gang and cartel members, and Brannon's team uses those recording to build a case. But tracking down those members can often be hard due to an elaborate system in which drugs have been seen smuggled into tombstones and prosthetic legs, to name a few methods.

Cartels also operate in cells. The DEA says many members have no clue they are operating blocks away from each other, working for the same people. And when rival cartels cross paths, that's when law enforcement says blood is spilled on the streets.

The DEA is now looking for what's next, and that appears to be fentanyl, which can be 30 to 50 times stronger than heroin. It's manmade and cut into heroin for one-tenth of the price, making it cheaper and more dangerous. Brannon says fentanyl is responsible for numerous deaths in the Bronx, which has the most overdose deaths tied to the drug.

Brannon says she will continue to put drug dealers behind bars from the ground, while other keep a watchful eye from the sky. Hunt says that while the DEA has made progress, the cartels are still operating in the Bronx.

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