NYPD deputy chief explains city’s drug trade patterns

New York Police Department (NYPD) deputy chief Edmund Hartnett, commanding officer of the Narcotics Borough Bronx, captivated a crowd in the Stetson faculty lounge last Wednesday with his discussion of new patterns in drug smuggling and dealing. His lecture was based on his experiences “in the trenches” of the drug war in New York City.

Hartnett opened with a discussion of current trends in the drug-dealing hierarchy. At the top of this “caste system” are the Colombian, Mexican and Dominican drug lords, with Colombia still established at the top. Next in line in New York are the “Tony Soprano types, who have a hand in the business but can’t really compete,” Hartnett said, adding that there also exists an outside influence of Asian heroin distributors.

Hartnett stressed that at the street level, “everybody’s involved.” The mechanics of the individual deals vary from person to person, but ultimately the couriers and dealers are held accountable to the drug lords. Mistakes, such as getting arrested, almost always brings stiff punishment – up to and including death – for all involved.

While individual dealers have their own unique styles, some general patterns seem to permeate the Bronx and Manhattan drug scene. A common practice is for dealers to sell drugs out of a “work apartment that they may or may not even rent. They kidnap people, hold them hostage in their own homes, and sell cocaine out of the living room,” Hartnett said. The money and majority of the drug stock is often in another apartment in the same or neighboring building or house. “The point is that money and drugs are seldom together,” he said.

Cell phones and pagers have provided dealers with a simple and effective way to communicate, often with secret and coded language that is hard for the police to understand but easy for partners and frequent clients.

“Most smart dealers deal with people they know. Dealing with strangers gets them caught,” Hartnett said.

Hartnett then moved on to how his department tries to combat the dealers, noting that “law enforcement always seems one step behind” the technology and innovation of the dealers. “They have the money and the time” to come up with high-tech “traps” (hidden storage places for drugs) and bug detectors to check for electronic mikes on undercover cops, he said.

Still, the cops in New York have had success combating the dealers. The most common device is a “simple buy and bust. We buy drugs, then bust the dealer,” Hartnett said. A bit more complicated is a “short-term case” with the goal being to work up through an organization and get a bigger bust on the local scale. The most time and labor-intensive method is a “long-term case,” which ranges from six months to several years and is designed to trace the drugs back to the ultimate source. When possible, Hartnett says the department pushes for federal prosecution of offenders, as that system offers longer mandatory sentences with no parole and a harsher lifestyle than the state system.

Hartnett then discussed the role that confidential informants play in developing cases, describing them as “the scum of earth, people who give up their friends, partners and even brothers, parents, wives and children.” While their information is often vital, “they can’t be trusted,” he said. Hartnett added that many informants choose to turn on their associates upon arrest. “Getting caught is a great motivator, but sometimes they just come forward for money, revenge or to get rid of their competition,” Hartnett said.

In spite of their questionable reliability, “[Informants] remain a necessary evil,” Hartnett said. They make for better cases and are often employed in dangerous situations instead of undercover officers. “I’d rather see the informant in a bad situation than one of my people,” Hartnett said.

From here, Hartnett addressed some of the current trends in who’s buying the drugs. “The United States is the top consumer of drugs in the whole world,” he said. “Our society has a hunger for drugs.” However, all indications are that drug use is going down. He gave most of the credit to the educational programs that help keep people from starting out. He also said that the AIDS epidemic has reduced the use of intravenous drugs as users became conscious of the dangers of needle sharing.

Even with the downward trend in abuse, drugs still represent a billion-dollar depression on the economy. “And the human impact is even worse,” Hartnett said, with families breaking up and a ripple crime effect that results in entire communities taken over by drugs. “There are good people living in those neighborhoods.”

Hartnett next traced the patterns of production and abuse in individual drugs. Heroin was his first target; it’s still a major problem now though he says society seems to have forgotten it. The drug is imported mainly from the “Golden Triangle” of Burma, Laos and Thailand and the “Golden Crescent” of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Turkey, but South American drug cartels are also getting involved now.

Distributors often package their heroin in colorful wrappers with brand names (such as “Poison,” “Tragic Magic” and “Twin Towers”) designed to be remembered. Dealers are serious about the “integrity” of their brand and there’s almost a code of “copyright infringement” on the streets.

Hartnett discussed cocaine and crack next. Produced almost entirely in South America (Peru, Bolivia and Paraguay) and processed in Colombia, cocaine enters the U.S. through the “Four Legs of the Dog,” Hartnett said. New York is the head and Houston, Los Angeles, Chicago and Miami the feet. Distribution is the most highly structured and closely controlled of any of the drugs: “The big guys [in the organization] are very, very thorough,” Hartnett said.

In opposition to the ordered system of cocaine distribution, “crack” emerged in the 1980s as a “cottage industry. A lot of people can deal without the whole network to support them,” Hartnett said.

Marijuana exists today mostly “under the radar screen” of law enforcement. Even though it’s more potent today than ever before, as the technology to increase the THC content improves, the police tend to focus on higher drugs.

Last he addressed ecstasy and pegged it as a “deadly drug.” Though each pill costs around 50 cents to make, dealers can sell them for $20 to $30 at clubs and rave parties. Manhattan nightclubs have proven to be a very “user-friendly” environment for buyers and sellers, due to their dark, safe and secure nature, Hartnett said.

Hartnett also addressed the connection between drugs, violence and terrorism. Violence erupts over “turf, product, prices, and customer disputes.” Again, it is often used to discipline employees when something goes wrong and simply as a message to other dealers to try to establish dominance.

Hartnett next relayed several cases of violence against cops. “Most drug dealers will surrender. . . but not always,” he said.

Terrorists, too, may benefit from drug money, which can be laundered through legitimate businesses and used to support violence. Hartnett characterized the current anti-terrorism climate as good for dealers – law enforcement focused on other things – but bad for transporters, as shipments are now checked much more thoroughly.

Hartnett concluded his presentation by discussing the issue of legalizing certain drugs. Not surprisingly, he stands firmly against it. The violence associated with selling will remain, and the gangsters will simply move on to other things, not break up. Legalization would also lead to
more addicts, and thus more problems. Furthermore, the negative impact on the poor would only intensify. “It hasn’t worked in Europe; it won’t work here,” Hartnett said.

Because of the intimate nature of the lecture, his presentation was followed by an animated question and answer session. Most of the questions focused on enforcement of drug laws by police, including the role of “unofficial informants.”

Hartnett explained the process of registering and using informants as very complicated. He implied that certain situations required using informants without actually classifying them as registered informants. This information can’t really be used in court, so its value is usually as a starting point, requiring corroboration before further action. The only time he would ever authorize action based on the word of an unregistered informant would be a life-and-death situation, he said.

Another question brought Hartnett back to the role of drug money in terrorism. While he couldn’t quantify how much money is funneled back to Islamic fronts, it is a significant amount. “I think it’s happening, and I think we’re going to see more of it,” Hartnett said.

Hartnett also reminded the audience that though fighting terrorism should be a vitally important goal of law enforcement, he hopes that drug work won’t be forgotten. “More people in the U.S. are killed by drugs than terrorism,” he said.