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Maryland U.S. Attorney's Office announced a new Baltimore Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force to fight violent crime in Baltimore.

A new federal “strike force” comprised of detectives, prosecutors and federal agents from across the region will begin work soon on a long-planned effort to target Baltimore drug gangs and their Mexican and Dominican suppliers, who have been flooding the city with heroin, fentanyl and other illicit drugs for years.

Hoping to reduce the record number of homicides and overdoses in the city, the team already has begun working a handful of cases together, and this week secured nearly 75,000 square feet of office space in Southwest Baltimore so its members can move into a shared headquarters. Officials say that will speed up the identification, investigation and prosecution of some of Baltimore’s most violent gang leaders.

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“We’re teaming up to go after the bad actors in this city who are threatening to destabilize it," said Don Hibbert, assistant special agent in charge of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s Baltimore field office and a key organizer behind the effort. “Simple as that.”

Baltimore is on course to reach more than 300 homicides for the fifth year in a row, with 232 killings through Wednesday compared to 199 at the same time last year. Overdose deaths slowed in the first quarter of this year after consecutive years in which the state recorded more than 2,000 such deaths — with 2,385 total overdose deaths around Maryland last year, many of them in Baltimore.

The team mirrors other multi-agency crime fighting strike forces created in other major cities like New York and Chicago for years under the U.S. Justice Department’s Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force program. The strike force’s more than $2.3 million in first year costs will be paid for by the task force and the Washington-Baltimore High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas program, another multi-agency effort.

Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison said he was “extremely pleased” with the new strike force, which he said will “enhance our ability to rid Baltimore of it’s most violent offenders" and interrupt the city’s “longstanding culture of violence," which he called a symptom of “organized crime that goes hand in hand with illegal drugs."

“The idea behind the strike force is straight forward," Hur said. “It takes the principle that local, state and federal law enforcement are most effective when working together, and it goes all in on that idea.”

Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. and officials from more than a dozen other partner agencies also attended.

“The idea behind the strike force is straight forward," Hur said. “It takes the principle that local, state and federal law enforcement are most effective when working together, and it goes all in on that idea.”

Officials said they hope the effort will lead to entire criminal organizations being indicted — from big time bosses to low-level street dealers. They also said they hope to see the local gangs’ overseas suppliers driven out of the area or arrested alongside their local counterparts.

Officials acknowledged other efforts by local, state and federal law enforcement agencies to collaborate in Baltimore in recent years — such as the city’s “War Room” initiative, or the “B-FED” task force pairing city homicide detectives with federal agents — but said the “strike force” is different, in large part because it is permanent.

“This is not going to be something for 6 months or a year and then we dissolve," Hibbert said. "No strike force in America has ever gone out of business.”

Hibbert said the Baltimore strike force includes the Baltimore Police, Maryland State Police, DEA, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the FBI, Homeland Security Investigations and the U.S. Marshals Service. Personnel from each of those agencies and the other partner agencies will be intermixed within seven units so that each one has a broad range of skill sets, he said.

In addition to federal and state partners, personnel will be provided by Baltimore County Police, Anne Arundel County Police and the Baltimore City Sheriff’s Office. Prosecutors will come from Hur and Mosby’s offices.

The Baltimore County Council agreed last month to allow the county to serve in the fiduciary role, and approved a 10-year rental agreement Tuesday for the strike force’s new headquarters worth more than $16 million. An earlier proposal to have the city of Annapolis serve the fiduciary role fell apart, delaying the project, officials acknowledged.

Hogan on Wednesday called the strike force “exactly the kind of coordinated, all-hands-on-deck approach that we need in order to take back our communities, get the shooters off the streets, and save lives."

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A copy of the Baltimore team’s application to create the strike force, submitted in 2017 and recently obtained by The Baltimore Sun, outlines the challenges the teams will face.

A major focus of the strike force will be disrupting long-standing relationships between wholesale drug suppliers from Mexico and the Dominican Republic and an “upper echelon” of Baltimore gang leaders who officials said "exert near-complete control over the supply and distribution of heroin, fentanyl, cocaine, and marijuana in the Baltimore region.”

Mexican cartels use longstanding relationships with some of Baltimore’s “largest and most violent street gangs” to supply the region with drugs, the application said, while Dominican wholesalers use distribution cells along Interstate 95 to push drugs to larger Baltimore gangs, who in turn supply the city’s “pervasive heroin and crack cocaine shops and street corners.”

Those smaller distributors, the application said, “engage in violence and stockpile weapons to further their business" and maintain territory.

Hibbert estimated that it will take about four to six months to complete the new office space for the strike force, after which he expects more cases to be brought and at a quicker clip.

A few cases have been filed already.

Last month, 25 defendants were accused of selling heroin, fentanyl, and crack and powder cocaine to individual drug users in East Baltimore and in bulk to other distributors. Investigators seized nine guns, about 20 kilograms of cocaine, heroin and fentanyl, nearly half a million dollars in cash and jewelry and another half a million dollars worth of cars.

The Baltimore strike force, like those in other cities, will recoup costs and share any additional proceeds gained through asset forfeiture in big criminal cases, officials said.

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