Miami-Dade SWAT combats rise of synthetic heroin
She raised the baby high into the air in the direction of two dozen Miami-Dade cops dressed head-to-toe in military gear, rifles at the ready, two heavily-armored vehicles parked behind them.
“You see this. You see the world you came into,” she said to the child. “And when you grow up, it might even be worse.”
Just a few moments earlier the police had stormed a small South Dade apartment complex, ordering everyone to the ground. In one of the apartments they confiscated a gun and two small wax packets that they suspected was heroin mixed with a potentially deadly synthetic drug called fentanyl.
Suspected, because fentanyl is a drug so deadly it’s too dangerous to field test without controlled conditions.
The bust was part of a months-long investigation, which included at least five undercover buys, that wrapped up Wednesday and Thursday with the arrests of 17 people and the confiscation of two weapons and several packets of suspected heroin.
Police dubbed it Operation Dragon Slayer — a nod to old nickname for heroin, dragon.
“It’s a culmination of an investigation that’s been ongoing for several months,” said Juan Villalba Jr., a lieutenant in the narcotics bureau. “We’ve seen an incremental increase in deaths caused by opioids. It’s been well documented throughout the country.”
Miami-Dade police were doing their part this week to help fight the heroin and opioid epidemic that is sweeping the nation. Last week the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that 12,989 people in the U.S. had died from heroin overdoses in 2015, more than had been killed by guns.
Many of those deaths came from a deadly mixture of heroin and fentanyl, a synthetic drug that is easily purchased over the internet, often from sites in China or Mexico. It has taken a particularly harsh toll in South Florida, especially in some Miami neighborhoods like Overtown.
To find the neighborhoods they believe are concentrated with the most drugs, police have been tracking the use of Narcan by Miami and Miami-Dade Fire Rescue. Narcan is a drug that neutralizes the paralyzing effect of the opioid and awakens victims. Miami Fire Rescue used it 1,700 times in the first nine months of 2016.
Since 2015, 31 people overdosed in Overtown. For the first nine months of this year the Miami-Dade Medical Examiner’s Office suspects more than 140 people have overdosed from heroin and fentanyl and its deadlier cousin carfentanil, which is used to tranquilize elephants.
For the past several months, undercover Miami-Dade police officers, working with federal counterparts infiltrated distribution networks. On Wednesday they made 16 arrests throughout the county, mostly for possession or distribution of a controlled substance.
Thursday, they served search warrants at three South Dade homes believed to be related to heroin distribution. The day’s haul was modest: A pair of confiscated guns, one arrest and several small packets containing suspected heroin and fentanyl.
The first home they hit, at 16730 SW 99th Ave., was empty when SWAT members arrived. A man was arrested there before the team arrived by cops monitoring the home. A few neighbors on the street peeked at the show of force through iron gates.
Then it was on to 22210 SW 116th Ave. Again, no one was home. Officers were in and out quickly. By the time police arrived at the next home, at 22325 SW 117th Ct., only about two blocks away, neighbors knew they were coming.
Small crowds had gathered on sidewalks to watch. A handful of residents took issue with the unusual show of force. One woman videotaping the sweep challenged officers to go back to their own neighborhoods and arrest folks there for drug infractions.
“How many jump outs in your ’hood? They got the most dope,” she said.
“Stop spreading hate,” countered one cop.
Near her was the woman holding the child. Like the other woman, she refused to give her name. Both said they feared retaliation from dealers. The woman said she couldn’t understand why such a show of force was necessary, even if someone in the apartment were selling drugs — something she’s lived and dealt with most of her life.
No one from the police department had taken the time to explain to her exactly what the police were doing and the rising death tolls from the dangerous versions of heroin being sold. As soon as a reporter offered an explanation, the woman changed her tone.
“Why didn’t they explain that,” she said. “Well, that makes sense then.”