Federal authorities in Minnesota trained their focus on a key fentanyl pipeline used by a prominent north Minneapolis gang in the latest criminal charges produced by U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger's ongoing gang crackdown.
Expanding on an indictment first filed in May aimed at the Highs street gang, prosecutors Wednesday charged 14 new alleged members or associates of the gang and traced its lucrative fentanyl supply to Arizona.
Law enforcement seized 11.6 kilograms of counterfeit fentanyl pills during the operation — enough, officials say, for hundreds of thousands of deadly doses — and carried out arrests between Arizona and Minnesota ahead of the announcement.
"Selling fentanyl in our communities is as dangerous and lethal as the brazen gun violence we've seen in our cities," Luger said Wednesday, adding that "addressing the nexus between narcotics trafficking and violent crime" was a key piece of the violent crime strategy he launched upon taking office last year.
Investigators meanwhile seized three dozen firearms and $218,000 linked to the new charges, which also include another round of federal racketeering conspiracy counts against 11 of the new defendants.
According to Wednesday's superseding indictment, alleged Highs members made roundtrip flights from Minneapolis to Phoenix between the summer of 2020 and spring 2023 with large sums of currency in tow to exchange for fentanyl pills that they resold in Minneapolis. The Highs members allegedly shipped the pills via U.S. mail to Minneapolis.
The emphasis on drug trafficking is a new chapter in the ongoing federal probe into Minneapolis gang activity. The bulk of the federal cases charged before Wednesday ran the gamut from complex criminal conspiracy charges to a heightened focus on machine gun conversion devices.
But law enforcement leaders Wednesday emphasized the deadly nature of fentanyl. In Minneapolis, Police Chief Brian O'Hara pointed out, overdose deaths climbed from 83 in 2017 to 231 last year.
Luger added that trafficking fentanyl, often in the form of knockoff pills, had been "essential to the operations" of the Highs and that the arrests and drug conspiracy charges filed against Jadarius Wright, 29, and Carlos Serrano, 31 — both from Phoenix — marked an important step toward disrupting the gang's trafficking efforts.
Rafael Mattei, assistant special agent in charge of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, said the investigation helped connect fentanyl being sold on the streets of Minneapolis to Arizona suppliers and Mexican drug cartels.
"These gangs don't just use guns to kill people," Mattei said. "These fake pills also kill people."
The new charges bring the total of alleged gang members indicted by Luger's office since May to 73, of which 17 have been convicted via guilty plea or at trial. His office has largely focused its efforts on the Highs, Lows and Bloods street gangs in Minneapolis, which law enforcement has blamed for much of the surge in violent crime since 2020.
Law enforcement leaders Wednesday again signaled hope that the steady stream of charges is having a chilling effect on criminal activity in Minneapolis.
O'Hara said that the sustained collaboration between federal and state law enforcement groups has helped drive down violent crime in Minneapolis. He said 20 fewer people have been killed and 163 fewer shot this year.
"This is not a miniseries," O'Hara said. "This strategy will continue and we're not slowing down. We're going to keep our foot on the gas and we are building on the decreasing crime we've seen this past year, and we will keep the pressure on."
The indictment also marked a return to using complex conspiracy charges under the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), which allows prosecutors to hold individuals accountable for illegal acts done to benefit a criminal group. Such charges, first filed in May's indictment, can carry penalties of up to life in prison.
The Highs conspiracy alleged in the charges dates to 2014 and includes illegal gun possession, homicides, carjacking and robberies.
Others charged with RICO conspiracy — all from Minnesota and with some facing additional drug and gun charges — on Wednesday include Gregory Brown, 33; Marques Walker, 41; Deandre Poe, 34; Clinton Brown, 29; Amarjah Lester, 21; Christopher Lee Washington, 29; Ernest Ketter, 27; Robert Lesure; Avante Nix, 21; Arron Davis, 31; and Dashawn Jackson, 31.
Leneal Frazier, 22, indicted in September, meanwhile received new charges of kidnapping in aid of racketeering, assault in aid of racketeering, carjacking and brandishing a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence, all in connection with an Aug. 15 carjacking.