DEA Operation High Step Seizes Heroin-Laced Artwork

Drug Enforcement Administration Administrator Karen P. Tandy announced on November 30th the results of Operation High Step, a multi-national investigation led by the DEA which targeted a major drug trafficking organization (DTO) that brought heroin from Colombia to Boston, New York, Chicago and Orlando. Operation High Step was a joint investigation between the DEA and Colombian National Police.

The drug trafficking organization brought down by Operation High Step relied on a sophisticated method of heroin trafficking into the United States. The traffickers concealed bricks of heroin inside the porcelain frames of paintings, which drug dealers shattered to retrieve the drugs for sale. Heroin was also smuggled into the U.S. by concealing shipments in shoes, furniture and clothing. They sewed heroin into the lining of clothing and the soles of shoes, then shipped these items across U.S. borders.

The year long investigation has resulted in the arrest of 78 individuals, the seizure of 78 kilograms of heroin, 39 kilograms of cocaine, $1.4 million in cash and 20 weapons. The investigation targeted every level of the DTO, from the Colombian source of supply to the wholesales distributors and retail dealers.

This organization was responsible for smuggling 25 kilograms of heroin into the United States per month. This powerful DTO was consistently obtaining multi-kilogram quantities of heroin from a lab near the Pereira, Colombia area and coordinating the smuggling of heroin to American cities. Following wholesale distribution in those cities, the DTO would electronically transfer the ill-gotten proceeds back to Colombia through wire transfers.

Details of the drug trafficking organization’s financial operations were revealed by the DEA. A kilogram of heroin purchased for $8000 in Colombia would sell for $55,000 in American cities. It would then be separated into 25000 glassine packets which sold for $10 each. The heroin seizure was worth over $12 million on the street.

Operation High Step resulted in 19 arrests in Colombia, including the leaders of this organization, Alberto Bejarano-Ospina and Gonzalo Salazar-Oliveros, based on indictments issued by the United States Attorney’s Offices in the Eastern District of New York, Southern District of New York, Northern District of Illinois, and the District of Massachusetts, charging them with distribution of and conspiracy to distribute heroin. The arrested individuals are now subject to extradition to the United States.

“Behind the allure of artwork lurked the poison of heroin,” said DEA Administrator Karen P. Tandy. “Heroin promises anything but beauty — forcing addiction, pain, and devastation on its users. ‘Operation High Step’ shows that traffickers are working hard to get their poison onto our streets, but DEA is relentless in keeping it where it belongs: out of the picture.”

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