Pubdate: Sun, 03 Apr 2016
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2016 The New York Times Company
Author: Timothy Williams


ST. LOUIS - Clara Walker, a mother of nine and grandmother of eight, 
was peering out the window of her home three years ago after hearing 
what she initially thought were gunshots from a television crime show.

But at that moment, Anthony Jordan, who the authorities say was a 
gang enforcer known as "Godfather," was spraying gunfire on the 
street outside, and two bullets struck Ms. Walker, killing her.

"St. Louis is a dangerous place right now," Johnny Barnes, Ms. 
Walker's longtime boyfriend, said during a recent interview. "It's 
all around us."

The death of Ms. Walker was linked by the authorities to a violent 
St. Louis street gang with ties to a Mexican drug cartel that in the 
past has supplied marijuana and cocaine throughout the Midwest. In 
recent years, however, Mexican traffickers have inundated the St. 
Louis area with a new, potent form of heroin, drastically reducing 
prices for the drug and increasing its strength to attract suburban users.

The dispersal of the cheap heroin has led to a surge in overdoses, 
addiction and violence in cities across the country.

Besides St. Louis - where the problem is particularly acute - 
Chicago, Baltimore, Milwaukee and Philadelphia have attributed recent 
spikes in homicides in part to an increase in the trafficking of 
low-cost heroin by Mexican cartels working with local gangs.

"The gangs have to have a lot of customers because the heroin is so 
cheap," said Gary Tuggle, the Drug Enforcement Administration's chief 
in Philadelphia, who observed the same phenomenon while overseeing 
the agency's Baltimore office. "What we are seeing is these crews 
becoming more violent as they look to expand their turf."

To attract customers, the cartels - usually through a local surrogate 
- - instruct gangs to sell the drug at prices as low as $5 for each 
button (about one-tenth of a gram of powdered heroin, which could 
last a novice user an entire day). At times, the gangs distribute 
free samples, according to agents with the Drug Enforcement Administration.

The purity level of heroin seized by drug agents on the streets of 
American cities has grown significantly in recent years, federal 
officials say, rising to 50 percent from 5 percent in St. Louis in 
the past several years, and as high as 90 percent in Philadelphia.

In a trend mimicked in large cities nationally, many of the heroin 
consumers in St. Louis are young whites in their 20s, who drive into 
the city from suburbs and distant rural areas, the police say. And 
while most heroin overdose victims here are white, nearly all of the 
shooting victims and suspects in St. Louis this year have been 
African-American men and boys, police data shows.

"What I'm seeing at street level are violent disputes about money 
owed around heroin debts, with sometimes the dispute being about 
money, and sometimes about drugs," said D. Samuel Dotson III, the 
police chief of St. Louis.

In 2014, St. Louis had the highest homicide rate of any city with 
more than 100,000 people. Its 157 homicides that year increased by 18 
percent in 2015 to 188, and while the rate has slowed in the initial 
months of this year, St. Louis is again on pace to be among the 
nation's most dangerous big cities.

The heroin problem has been difficult for the city's leaders to 
ignore. Those who have succumbed to the drug include a nephew of 
Steve Stenger's, the St. Louis County executive, who died from an 
overdose in 2014. A brother of Mayor Francis Slay's was arrested on a 
charge of heroin possession in 2012, and the stepson of Jennifer 
Joyce's, the city's top prosecutor, was arrested on the same charge last month.

"These heroin addicts are daughters, sons, husbands, wives or, in my 
case, a brother," Mr. Slay told reporters last month.

Mexican cartels, including the Sinaloa cartel, which dominates the 
supply of illegal drugs throughout the Midwest, have generally not 
engaged directly in violence in St. Louis, law enforcement officials 
here say. But cartel lieutenants have sought to incite rivalries 
among street crews, the authorities say.

The drug syndicate that federal authorities say mistakenly killed Ms. 
Walker four days after Christmas in 2013 was led by Jose Alfredo 
Velazquez, a Mexican-born businessman who speaks little English, and 
Adrian Lemons, who has a drug arrest record in St. Louis dating to 
the 1990s, according to a federal indictment and other court records. 
Officials say that Mr. Velazquez has been linked to the Sinaloa 
cartel, long headed by Joaquin Guzman Loera, the drug kingpin known 
as El Chapo, who has repeatedly escaped from Mexican prisons only to 
be caught again.

The partnership between Mr. Velazquez, 55, and Mr. Lemons, 38, began 
around 2012, primarily as a cocaine dealing operation, officials said.

But as tastes in the area changed, the operation began to sell more heroin.

For four years, the enterprise proved nearly unstoppable, law 
enforcement officials contend. While Mr. Velazquez and Mr. Lemons 
focused on the logistics - racking up millions of dollars in heroin 
and cocaine sales - their street crew, including Mr. Jordan, 30, 
protected their turf by killing at least 17 people, including Ms. 
Walker, federal prosecutors say.

After a two-year investigation, the enterprise was finally dismantled 
in January, when 18 members of the gang - including Mr. Velazquez, 
Mr. Lemons and Mr. Jordan - were indicted on a variety of charges, 
including murder and drug trafficking. Trial dates have not yet been set.

When he fatally shot Ms. Walker, 51, Mr. Jordan was apparently aiming 
at a member of a rival gang, the authorities say. Two bullets struck 
Ms. Walker - one in the neck, the other in the shoulder. Several 
other rounds fatally wounded a man sitting in a parked sport utility 
vehicle nearby.

Ms. Walker, who felt unsafe in the neighborhood and had wanted to 
move, had been cooking pig's ears and cleaning the house while her 
children were watching a crime drama on a Sunday afternoon, said Mr. 
Barnes, 54, her boyfriend for more than 12 years.

"She was just an innocent person," he said.

Federal officials have so far seized 65 firearms, including several 
assault rifles, and confiscated more than $1 million from the group, 
according to court records.

"As we kept peeling away at it, we kept finding there was more and 
more to it that ultimately connected St. Louis to Texas and Mexico," 
Chief Dotson said.

Federal officials say that the Sinaloa cartel manufactures the heroin 
in the mountains of northwestern Mexico and transports it across the 
border, where operatives like Mr. Velasquez are responsible for 
ensuring it gets to St. Louis.

Chief Dotson said the local gang had been responsible for so much 
violence in the city that the arrests might lead to a significant 
reduction in violent crime, which rose by 7.8 percent in 2015, 
including an 18.2 percent increase in homicides.

Lawyers for Mr. Velazquez and Mr. Lemons declined to comment.

Despite the indictments, heroin continues to be sold openly in the 
mainly African-American neighborhoods of North St. Louis once 
dominated by the group.

"They call and we tell them what time and this spot," said a lanky 
17-year-old who was selling heroin recently, and who gave his 
nickname as "B." "If they have the right money, it's right."

On one recent afternoon, young men moved quickly from parked car to 
parked car as part of prearranged meetings. They passed small 
packages wrapped in wax paper through open windows in exchange for 
handfuls of cash. In fewer than five minutes, the line of cars - some 
with Illinois and Kentucky license plates - and the dealers were gone.

On the neighborhood's neatly tended front lawns, signs erected by 
weary residents had a simple, if frequently ignored, plea: "We must 
stop killing each other."
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