PHOTOS: Chicago DEA Most Wanted
The death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman has people talking about heroin. But here in metro Chicago, it's been a daily, deadly problem and it's getting worse.
The I-Team investigated what's behind 90 percent of it: a lethal partnership between Mexican drug cartels and Chicago street gangs-- something drug enforcement agents call "the perfect storm." In recent months, the DEA has given us an exclusive view of their special operations and tactics.
At 6:30 a.m. on Chicago's West Side, people from all walks of life-- the city and suburbs-- line up to buy $10 bags of heroin.
"The heroin situation, which is by far I think the worst I've ever seen in the Midwest, it is really solely sourced from Mexico," said Jack Riley, DEA Chicago.
Jack Riley heads the DEA here in Chicago. He says once the drugs make it over the border, cartel foot soldiers get the stash to Chicago and then sell in bulk to high-ranking street gang members.
"Here in Chicago, I refer to it as a perfect storm. We have literally documented 100,000 we know make their living putting narcotics, particularly heroin, on the street," said Riley.
Tinos Diamantatos prosecuted dozens of drug cases during his time at the U.S. Attorney's office. He says gang leaders are very protective of their cartel contacts.
"As much as they can insulate the criminal activity, they'll do so. The foot soldiers, the individuals who are out on the streets selling the narcotics for the gang, in many instances have no idea where those narcotics came from," said Tinos Diamantatos, Morgan, Lewis & Bockius.
Heroin is not only sold in the city. DuPage and other collar counties are seeing a huge surge in sales-- and overdoses.
"The reality is, there are people who live in the suburbs who have money, and the drug dealers are aware of that," said Robert Berlin, DuPage County State's Attorney.
Forty-six people died last year from heroin overdoses in DuPage County alone. Chicago leads the nation in heroin overdose related emergency room visits.
Law enforcement officials say this epidemic forced them to take a new approach. This classified strategy report from Chicago's DEA chief is one he normally gives to leaders in Washington, but he recently invited the I-Team to watch.
"We have to have the ability to interrupt violence on the street with our partners at the police department," said Riley.
Riley lobbied justice department officials to set up an organization in Chicago modeled after a rarely talked about national task force known as the "Fusion Center." The goal is to break up criminal organizations here by sharing information from all law enforcement agencies.
The Chicago Strike Force now has 70 federal agents, local police and prosecutors.
"Our strategy is to work the street, to intervene when we can on the streets in terms of stopping violence, shooting and homicides, but to follow cases wherever they take us," said Riley.
Vince Balbo leads the strike force. He asked the I-Team not to disclose the location of its headquarters to protect those who work there.
Balbo says the task force is making progress.
"We have a bunch of badges back there but we only have one mission. It's really about putting the bad guys in jail and taking all of their assets," said Balbo.
Despite the success, Balbo says innocent people continue to die.
"They could care less about anyone getting killed over it because the Mexican cartel is just sitting back collecting all of the money and the street gangs are doing all of the dirty work," said Balbo.
The price tag to operate the strike force is $800,000 per year, plus money contributed from each agency. Authorities tell the I-Team more than 100 drug defendants are behind bars because of the group's investigations. The trial of several accused top Mexican cartel members begins this spring here in Chicago.