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By Tristan Hallman, The Dallas Morning News

DALLAS — The Dallas Police Department’s interdiction squad is still doing what it always has: using surveillance and human intelligence to stop smugglers coming into and through the city.
But what squad members have been uncovering recently reflects a growing national trend: heroin, and lots of it.

Law enforcement officials say heroin use has soared across the United States as the drug has become cheaper and more available. And Dallas — with its highways, railways, airports, and proximity to the southern border — is both a major layover point and a destination for heroin and other illicit drug trafficking.

The Dallas Police Department has a squad of 10 officers and a sergeant devoted to stopping smugglers on train lines, bus routes, and at Dallas Love Field. Acting Assistant Chief Christina Smith, who oversees the department’s narcotics division, said using local officers is useful for stopping international smugglers.

“They’re not always just passing through,” Smith said. “Sometimes we are the final destination, and sometimes we’re not. But as law enforcement officers, we’re here to enforce the laws of the state, and occasionally, these types of arrests lead to larger investigations that lead us to the sources and the suppliers, which ultimately would benefit everyone.”

The drugs are often on their way to the Northeast. Robert Mazur — a retired Drug Enforcement Agency operative who wrote a book, The Infiltrator, about his years as an undercover officer with Colombian cartels — said Dallas has “a great highway system” for drug traffickers to use.

“From a highway perspective, you guys are really in a pretty important setting,” he said. “You can go up to the Midwest, you can go to major cities in the East.”

Chicago is a popular destination for smugglers of heroin and other drugs coming through Dallas, Smith said.

For instance, Jorge Garcia, who was at a bus station on his way to Chicago from San Antonio, got busted in May when officers found a white trash bag at the bottom of his duffel bag. The bag contained 6.6 pounds of marijuana.

Two months before, police arrested Maria Aramburo, 48, at the same Buckner Terrace bus station after they said they found more than seven pounds of heroin in her bag. She was on her way to Chicago from Brownsville and was waiting to board another bus in Dallas.

The officers talked with Aramburo after they spotted her “watching detectives closely without turning her head” while walking through the terminal, according to an arrest warrant affidavit.

She let the interdiction officers search her bags, according to the affidavit. The officers found what appeared to be large cans of food. But inside the heat-sealed cans was white powder heroin.

Aramburo remains in Dallas County jail on a drug dealing charge in lieu of $500,000 bail.

In June, the officers caught another man, Eduardo Ordonez, at the same bus station heading for Chicago from Brownsville. They saw six cans similar to Aramburo’s in his bag. As they suspected, the cans were also filled with white powder heroin, police said.

Dan Salter, the special agent in charge of the DEA’s Dallas Division, said the uptick in heroin use is attributable to a rise in prescription drug addiction.

“What you have is a productive citizen who at one time may have had a righteous entry into pain medicine through prescription and is ultimately addicted. And once the doctor no longer prescribes that medicine, often these individuals are going to heroin, which is just as strong and cheaper,” he said. “It’s really almost to epidemic proportions.”

The heroin the agencies see is now more of a white or tan powder that can be snorted rather than a black tar heroin that is meant to be injected, Salter said. That makes the heroin less intimidating to entry-level users who might be spooked by needles, he said. The falling price of powdered heroin also makes it more attainable than it once was.

Salter said the DEA has launched more heroin investigations in the last year than in the prior 15 years combined. Methamphetamine remains popular in Texas, but he said Mexican drug cartels are responding to an increased demand for heroin. And a kilo of heroin is just as easy to get in the country as any other drug, he said.

While cars and trucks are effective, buses and trains are also a cheap and simple way to move drugs, said Robert Taylor, a University of Texas at Dallas criminal justice professor. There is less security on buses and at bus stations, which are often associated with criminal activity and sex trafficking. And there isn’t as big of a chance of getting pulled over.

Meanwhile, Salter said, airports are rarely used as a way to move drugs because of stepped-up airport security.

Law enforcement officials declined to talk specifics about their tactics for catching smugglers.

Sometimes luck and experience plays a factor. In July, Dallas police arrested Richard Limas, 45, at a bus station because Limas had apparently fallen asleep and missed the bus. Officers found strange beltlike objects that Limas said were back braces. The officers initially walked away from the strange objects, but came back and cut open the braces to find about a pound and a half of methamphetamine.

But Taylor, the founding executive director of the Caruth Police Institute, said using informants is the most effective interdiction strategy. Turning small and midlevel dealers into informants to find the suppliers pays off in a lot of cases.

AFP Photo/Andrew Burton

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