A violent East Baltimore cocaine organization with direct links to a Colombian cartel has been dismantled, fulfilling the new police commissioner's vow to go after top-level drug dealers, police said yesterday.
With a state judge's permission, city detectives broke the drug ring by bugging the phones of suspected traffickers and eavesdropping on their illegal activity. It was the department's first use of a high-tech crime-fighting tool usually used by federal authorities, who in the past led investigations such as the one announced yesterday.
"We've made quite a dent in the East Baltimore drug trade," Commissioner Edward T. Norris said during a news conference yesterday at police headquarters downtown. "This is a gang that has been flourishing for years and has remained untouched until now."
More than 20 defendants arrested in the past several weeks were arraigned in Circuit Court yesterday, the same day police arrested 10 additional suspects in early-morning raids across the city. All were ordered held in lieu of bail ranging from $250,000 to $10 million.
Since April, police said, they have arrested 42 alleged ring members, some charged with trafficking and others with receiving the products. They have searched 88 homes and seized 21 guns, 20 cars and 2.5 kilograms of cocaine worth more than a half-million dollars on the street, they said. It was unclear yesterday how much business was being conducted.
Authorities displayed on a table at police headquarters a sampling that included bundles of $20 and $100 bills totaling $159,000, and dozens of vials filled with crack cocaine and ready to be sold to addicts for $20 apiece.
Authorities said they got a tip two weeks ago that Raul Varela, a suspected Colombian drug trafficker well known to undercover federal agents, had come to the city from New York with six associates - who also were arrested - reportedly to check up on his Baltimore operation, consisting of groups working East Federal, East Preston and North Durham streets.
Varela, 50, was arrested early yesterday at a motel on Moravia Road and charged with drug trafficking. Police said they found 1.5 kilograms of high-grade cocaine and $91,000 in cash in a secret compartment under the back seat of his 1985 Buick Regal.
"That was a bonus in all this," State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy said at the news conference. "We really caught a big fish."
Officials declined to elaborate on the suspect and would not say which Colombian cartels he has been linked to, saying that could compromise the investigation.
Jessamy said local law enforcement agencies are finally going after a wide range of people connected to the illegal drug trade.
"We are going from the top down and the bottom up, and we're catching everyone in between," said Jessamy, who assigned four prosecutors to oversee the case, described as one of the largest initiated by local law enforcement agencies.
Norris, a former commander in the New York City Police Department, has complained since his appointment in May about the lack of direction and technology in the city's war on drugs, which is linked to many of the city's roughly 300 annual homicides and fueled by an estimated 55,000 drug addicts.
Federal authorities took the lead in 1996, as local drug lord Anthony Ayeni Jones was convicted and put in prison for life after city police had failed in their attempts to shut down the teen-ager linked to a dozen East Baltimore killings.
After authorities arrested Jones, police began several initiatives and programs that fizzled out after one or two significant busts.
Two years ago, they won the convictions of 32 members of Cherry Hill's Veronica Avenue Boys as part of a youth violence strike force. It was the group's only initiative with tangible results.
Law enforcement officials said yesterday that the age of "programs" is over, replaced by back-to-basics policing citywide. They offered yesterday's announcement as proof that the new policing strategies work and will target street-level pushers and addicts, and international smugglers.
Part of Norris' plan is flooding the city's violent east side with 120 additional officers ordered to aggressively attack suspected drug corners. He also has boosted the undercover narcotics squad and hired John Pignataro, a New Yorker proficient in the most up-to-date technology and its use in fighting crime, to run the department's new technology section.
Norris noted that his East Baltimore initiative was "called an act of desperation" by a Sun editorial. "That's when you take a lot of people, throw them at a problem and just let them go at it and hope for the best," he said. "That's not what happened here."
He said officers hit the east side knowing what corners contained key drug figures and with an understanding of how shootings and homicides were linked. He said much of the information used to break up the suspected gang came from the east-side initiative.
"You lock people up at the lowest level," Norris said. "You squeeze them. You get them to flip, and you get information on people they work for."
Representatives of several jurisdictions attended the news conference, including Special Agent Gary Hartman, who is in charge of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration's Baltimore office.
Officials said federal charges against some of the suspects, including the Colombian, are being considered. None of the suspects appeared in state court with lawyers yesterday, and one told a judge that he could not speak English. Most are from Baltimore.
Details of where and how the suspected drug suppliers worked were not divulged. Police said the alleged traffickers were selling drugs to several city groups and that their arrests had broken up the "middle level" of a supply line that started in South America and went through New York before reaching East Baltimore.
Police said several groups were suspected of selling the drugs seized from the alleged ringleader. One hit yesterday is called the Boulevard Boyz, which operated out of a rowhouse in the 900 block of N. Patterson Park Ave.