See more of the story

Minnesota law enforcement saw surges in meth, cocaine and heroin seizures last year, more evidence that drug cartels are operating a thriving network from Mexico to the Midwest.

The state’s multijurisdictional Violent Crime Enforcement Teams impounded 1,706 pounds of meth last year, a 49% increase from 2018 and a 625% rise over the past five years, according to data released by the Department of Public Safety this week.

The task forces, designed to target drug and gang crime, confiscated 55 pounds of heroin last year, more than double the amount in 2018, according to the data. They seized 106 pounds of cocaine, an 80% increase from the year prior.

The data reflect a vast shift in drug trafficking in Minnesota over the past two decades. In 2003, during the height of the last meth wave, authorities discovered 410 meth labs in Minnesota. Last year they found only four.

Instead, Mexican cartel organizations have staked their claim here. Minnesota has become a national distribution hub for meth, creating a new epidemic of cheaper and more potent product than ever before.

“Meth is our biggest drug of choice here, and it’s cartel meth,” said U.S. Attorney Erica MacDonald.

Much of the cocaine and heroin is also coming from the Mexican pipeline. Local and federal cops have been working together to thwart the drug surge. Last fall, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration announced a new field office based in Duluth to help mitigate the drug trade ravaging the North Shore area.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office has doubled its prosecutors in the unit focused on drugs, guns and gangs, and from fiscal year 2018 to 2019 it doubled meth prosecutions, MacDonald said.

The work is paying off, she said. But the drugs keep coming. “We’ve got to keep putting the pressure on the Mexican cartels,” she said.

Brian Marquart, Minnesota’s statewide gang and drug coordinator, said the increase in seizures shows law enforcement is making bigger busts by working up the chain of command to greater targets. It also lays bare a new reality in Minnesota in which these drugs are flooding the black market.

“There is definitely a much higher availability of those three drugs that are out there,” he said.

Law enforcement is seeing a particularly troubling new trend with heroin, said Marquart. More of it is cut with fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is vastly cheaper — and deadlier — than opium.

Last year, at least 135 people fatally overdosed on fentanyl or fentanyl analogs in Hennepin County alone — 10 times as many as in 2015, according to preliminary data from the county Medical Examiner’s Office. Those numbers mirror a national trend of fentanyl-related deaths.

Police also seized 259 pounds of marijuana concentrate or wax, according to the data. This includes products such as vapor cartridges — not green-leaf marijuana — much of it coming from the expanding list of states that have legalized it across the country.