U.S. Officials Break Major Heroin Ring

Federal officials arrested 78 people Wednesday in what's being described as a major heroin ring active in the Northeast. The arrests took place in several states and Colombia.

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The US Drug Enforcement Agency says it has shut down a large-scale heroin and cocaine smuggling operation. Authorities arrested 78 people in the US and abroad, including the alleged leaders of the operation in Colombia. The drugs were destined for Orlando, Chicago, New York and Boston. In and around Boston, there's concern that heroin use among young people is rising, including in middle- and upper middle-class suburbs. NPR's Chris Arnold reports.

CHRIS ARNOLD reporting:

Authorities have seized about 80 kilos of heroin, 40 kilos of cocaine, weapons and more than a million dollars, and the case shows some of the imaginative ways that smugglers are getting drugs across the border. The DEA says heroin was sewn into clothing and the soles of shoes, built into furniture and even hidden inside of Asian-looking paintings. Michael Sullivan is the US attorney in Boston.

Mr. MICHAEL SULLIVAN (US Attorney): It's alleged that the heroin was secreted in a shipment of glass paintings of geisha girls destined for shipment to lead defendant Luis Lopez in Florida for ultimate distribution in Massachusetts.

ARNOLD: In the Massachusetts and New England region, one senior DEA agent says heroin is an increasing problem. Many police, addicts and treatment providers blame that on the fact that more people are abusing the prescription painkiller OxyContin than making the jump to heroin. They say what's particularly frightening is how many teen-agers are getting hooked that way.

Ms. CHERYL OATES (Mother): You know, as a parent I would have bet my soul that my son never ever would have touched heroin. Never.

ARNOLD: Cheryl Oates is the mother of Chris Oates, who just five weeks ago died of a heroin overdose. He was 19 years old. The family lives in the middle-class suburb of Burlington, Massachusetts. Oates' son was not the kind of kid you'd peg to be a drug addict. He was captain of his high school football team and captain of the wrestling team.

Ms. OATES: Christopher was just the greatest kid you ever could have in this world--loved everybody. Terrific son--that just got caught up in something that he couldn't get out of. Life will never be the same again. I mean, the loss of the child--he's 19 years old. I miss him every second of every minute of every day.

ARNOLD: Cheryl Oates says while still in high school, her son and some of his friends got hooked on OxyContin, which is a powerful and very effective drug for managing severe pain. But doctors say when abused it can be powerfully addictive in a way that's very similar to heroin. They're both opiates. Oxy is also very expensive to buy on the street: $80 for a single pill. Dr. Sharon Levy is a pediatrician who runs a clinic for drug-addicted adolescents at Children's Hospital in Boston.

Dr. SHARON LEVY (Children's Hospital): Opiates are very, very addicting, so kids quickly get addicted and what happens is that they can no longer afford OxyContin and they start looking for cheaper ways to get drugs, and that often means moving on to heroin.

ARNOLD: As far as this latest big drug bust, even DEA officials and local police say they don't expect it will make a dent in supply. Police Lieutenant Gerald Poirier heads up the North Worcester County Drug Task Force about an hour west of Boston.

Lieutenant GERALD POIRIER (North Worcester County Drug Task Force): It is a major bust, and it was a very, very gallant effort, very dangerous effort. And the people involved have to be praised for what they did. The sad thing is it doesn't do much for the overall drug picture.

ARNOLD: Poirier says there are just so many people dealing and smuggling drugs. He says in recent years whenever he's had big drug busts that take out a group of dealers, there are always others standing in line to take over their business. Chris Arnold, NPR News, Boston.

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