Getting to the source

February 06, 2005

BUSTING a Northwest Baltimore drug organization that allegedly sold $27 million worth of heroin and cocaine on the streets of Park Heights began with a series of small drug buys two years ago. Those hand-to-hand purchases by an undercover Baltimore detective took place on a well-known drug corner. But police and their federal counterparts didn't stop there. They followed the drugs and money from the accused street dealers to the kingpins in offices to the Latin American suppliers of this deadly enterprise.

That's the kind of drug investigation that can savage the narcotics trafficking that ruins lives and families and neighborhoods in Baltimore. And the law enforcement cooperation displayed in this case merits commendation and encouragement.

As this newspaper has said repeatedly, dismantling the drug trade that drives the violence and murder in Baltimore requires a comprehensive approach that relies on more than rousting street dealers. Those busts have to lead somewhere other than the downtown courthouse if Baltimore wants to dry up the source of so much pain in the city. The drug trade claims thousands of victims, from the addicts itching to score to the youngsters lured by easy money to the innocents killed in the crossfire of rival drug gangs. It costs tens of millions in public dollars to treat addicts, safeguard the children they neglect and imprison the men and women pushing dime bags of coke and smack.

Low-level drug dealers can be cleared easily from a corner, and this brings a modicum of peace to a neighborhood - but it's a temporary reprieve. Unless their suppliers are put out of business, the corner dealing will resume just as soon the next guy steps up. The investigation into the organization allegedly led by brothers Howard and Raeshio Rice morphed from street police work into a sophisticated, time-consuming probe that relied on search warrants and wiretaps.

When city prosecutors realized the extent of the drug organization and its ties to Mexico and Colombia, they rightly sought the help of their federal counterparts. And up the ladder they climbed. Federal indictments announced last week allege that the decade-old drug ring sold 1,500 kilos of cocaine and heroin on the streets of Park Heights and Cherry Hill and used the profits to buy restaurants, luxury automobiles and homes in Baltimore, and Harford and Howard counties.

This case shows what can be accomplished when law enforcement works cooperatively: federal indictments against 13 people and state charges against another 19. A midlevel player in the drug ring has already pleaded guilty in state court and been sentenced to 20 years.

The United States of America vs. Howard Rice et al is a sobering reminder that Baltimore may bear the brunt of the illegal drug trade in Maryland and its citizens may pay for it with their lives, but the corrupting influence of illegal drugs stretches from the Rio Grande to playgrounds in Cherry Hill to a $389,000 home in Elkridge.

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