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NYC drug officials warn of crack, cocaine return

Crack is back. 

And that could mean big trouble for the Big Apple.

Cops and prosecutors told The Post that a record influx of Colombian cocaine has spurred the return of crack — the cheap, smokable scourge that sparked a crime wave in New York in the late 1980s and 1990s.

“We’re seeing a resurgence of crack,” said Frank Tarentino, who heads the DEA’s New York Division, noting that other forms of cocaine are booming as well. “The demand never really went away, but the supply has increased exponentially.”

The torrent of coke has driven down street prices to levels not seen in decades, according to law-enforcement officials, who say a single-use rock can be had for as little as $5.

Turf wars are breaking out, according to city narcotics prosecutor Bridget Brennan, whose office is targeting crack gangs in upper Manhattan as they battle over street corners, just as dealers did more than 30 years ago.  

“The groups want to control the territory, and they have to sell a lot. If somebody else is encroaching on them, they’re not going to be able to do that,” Brennan told The Post. “Historically we’ve seen violence associated with them, and certainly in our current investigation we’ve seen that.”

In addition to crack, the city is also brimming with regular old cocaine — once a symbol of Wall Street excess, it now sells for about $10 per twist, law-enforcement sources said.

These cellophane bags, tied off with string, contain two or three lines’ worth, making powdered cocaine a cheap party drug that’s nearly as inexpensive as pot. 

All while dabblers face the possibility of instant death from fentanyl, the potent, highly addictive opioid increasingly found mixed into cocaine and other illicit drugs.

Investigators have busted packing operations where blends are made using cocaine, fentanyl, heroin, meth, tramadol, and the sedative xylazine — also known as tranq, a newly notorious non-opioid that adds a potentially life-threatening kick when taken with narcotics.

While fentanyl and heroin are often found in the same bricks or bundles, cocaine, and fentanyl typically don’t get mixed until this packaging stage.

Workers turn kilos into bags for dealers and glassine envelopes for individual buyers, prosecutors say.

At one location near Van Cortlandt Park in The Bronx that was broken up in November, alleged ringleader Samuel Rojas-Camacho produced glassines stamped with his brand, “Skull Crusher,” and had on hand more than 50 pounds of drugs, including cocaine, fentanyl, and heroin, according to Brennan, who heads the city’s Office of the Special Narcotics Prosecutor.

At another apartment in the Bronx, investigators found eight bags of drugs, weighing three-quarters of a kilo, containing both fentanyl and cocaine.

“What we’re seeing is these stash locations where you’ll have kilos of all kinds of different drugs in the same place and then they’ll have a mini mill, with mill equipment alongside the stashes,” Brennan said. “There’s no quality control. That’s where the overdoses come in.”

The cascade of imported cocaine stems from a 50% surge in Colombian coca production, with crops now covering 245,000 hectares — up from 160,000 hectares during the height of the cocaine craze in the 1990s, officials said.

By 2010, Colombia’s aggressive eradication program had dropped the number to about 80,000 hectares.

During this crackdown, the Colombians physically yanked out coca plants and sprayed fields from the air with Roundup — the herbicide glyphosate — decimating the coca but also exposing farm workers to a known carcinogen.  

That program ended due to the cancer concerns over Roundup and because eradication was wiping out other crops, including coffee plants, banana trees, and cocoa beans, staples of the country’s agro-economy.

All aerial fumigation ended in 2015.

After the government stopped targeting coca, growers no longer had to worry about losing their harvests, and production of the cash-generating plant exploded, with massive new coca fields sprouting up across Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia.

The plant takes about three years to fully mature.

“There’s not just more production. There’s also more efficiency to extract the alkaloid to produce more cocaine,” said Leonardo Correa of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

He said new and smaller coca-growing outfits — some with suspected ties to cartels — have popped up in Colombia, and that farmers in Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras are successfully harvesting the plant in those countries for the first time.

Abundant supply and efficient processing have sent wholesale prices plummeting.

An uncut kilo of cocaine, which hit an all-time high of $35,000 five years ago, is now about $17,000, according to Tarentino. “That’s like 1990s prices,” he said.

Meanwhile, dealers are luring in new customers. 

Online marketing and delivery services make getting the drug fast and easy, allowing buyers of powdered cocaine to avoid scoring on the street.  

“Everything about drug trafficking today is technology,” Tarentino said. “It’s the internet, machine learning, AI, and e-commerce. These [drug-dealing] organizations take full advantage and then weaponize these techniques to get their product to everybody.”

Addicts seeking a stimulant and depressant — like the 1970s speedball, which combined heroin and cocaine and caused the overdose death of comedian John Belushi — have found a new favorite in fentanyl-spiked coke.

“It’s a different kind of high,” said Brennan. “It’s quick, it’s a lot and they burn through it. It may be that the cocaine keeps you conscious enough to enjoy your high or that the fentanyl takes the edge off.”

Those accustomed to taking oxycodone, heroin, or other opioids tend to be less vulnerable to fentanyl’s fatal power because of having built up a tolerance, experts say. Some may regularly ingest 2 milligrams or more of fentanyl.

That same amount can kill a less experienced user.

“It’s mostly young people who are fentanyl-naive who are most at risk,” said Brian Mason, a District Attorney in Colorado, where fentanyl-infused cocaine killed five friends in Commerce City in Feb. 2022, including a young couple with a four-month-old girl.

“High school, college kids, people in their early 20s who are trying something for the first time because they want to get better sleep or think it will make them feel good,” Mason added. “And they have no idea that one mistake can lead to their death.”

Three successful New York professionals — Credit Suisse trading exec Ross Mtangi, 40; first-year lawyer Julia Ghahramani, 26; and social worker Amanda Scher, 38 — all died in March 2021 — after unwittingly ingesting fatal doses of cocaine laced with fentanyl from the same supplier.

A similar blend of cocaine and fentanyl also claimed the life of Brooklyn actor Michael K. Williams, who played trigger-happy stick-up artist Omar Little in “The Wire” TV series and died at age 54 after taking fentanyl-laced cocaine and heroin in 2021.

“It’s not the cocaine that’s killing people, it’s the fentanyl,” said Ghahramani’s sister Kim, who was devastated after Julia, her older sibling and “my best friend” died in her Avenue B apartment.

“She died within seconds. She had no idea what she was taking. She wasn’t an addict. It’s poison. It’s murder,” Kim said.

The dealer, 36-year-old Billy Ortega of West Milford, NJ, was convicted of narcotics conspiracy charges in Manhattan federal court on Jan. 30 and faces a minimum of 25 years in prison.

“I just don’t think they thought it would happen to them,” said Debby Rodriguez, whose 26-year-old daughter Karina, the mother of the infant, was among those who died in Commerce City.

Karina Joy Rodriguez, her baby Aria, and the father of the child, Sam Marquez, had gathered at her apartment with his sister Cora and three friends after the group had gone out to dinner together, said Debby. Karina had just returned to work as a server at a steakhouse following maternity leave.

“It was her first time getting out after having the baby,” Debby said. “She was the happiest she had been.”

It was Sam and Cora’s sister Selina who found them.

“She thought everybody was just sleeping,” said Debby. Cora somehow survived but “doesn’t remember anything,” she said, other than looking at a clock and waking up unsure as to what happened. Arias was unharmed and is being cared for by relatives.

But nine months later, tragedy struck again.

Salina Marquez was killed from a lethal dose of fentanyl. 

“The sister that found them, she just died, too,” said Debby. “In November. It was accidental. She kind of just lost it after she found them all.”

In New York, city officials say that 2,668 people died of drug overdoses in 2021, an increase of 78% since 2019, according to Health Department stats — with fentanyl detected in 80 percent of the deaths. That made the opioid the most common substance in ODs for the fifth year in a row.

The agency is trying to combat the problem by distributing 159,951 kits of naloxone, the life-saving drug also known as Narcan, which can prevent death during an unintended fentanyl overdose, and more than 32,000 testing strips to detect the presence of the drug. (It has no effect, however, on xylazine.)

The heartbreaking toll comes despite ramped-up policing and efforts to sound the alarm.

“If you look around the world, countries are coming up with record seizures,” said Toby Muse, an investigative reporter and author of the book “Kilo: Life and Death Inside the Secret World the Cocaine Cartels.”

That includes more than $1 billion worth of cocaine from a Brooklyn-based operation allegedly run by former heavyweight boxer Goran Gogic, one of the largest drug confiscations in US history.

Gogic stands accused of sending cargo container shipments of coke to Panama, Peru, and the Netherlands. A grand jury indicted him on conspiracy and other charges in Brooklyn federal court in October.

New York City cops are cracking down, making 14.7% more narcotics arrests in 2022 over 2021, according to the NYPD.

“Abuse of cocaine and the deadly additive fentanyl has cut a wide swath across New York City and our nation, affecting people in all neighborhoods, from all walks of life,” the department said in a statement. 

“To combat this scourge, we seek to shut down the supply of illegal drugs and, ultimately, to save lives. That is why NYPD detectives probe every overdose to determine how the narcotics were obtained.”

But some feel that, with the increase in cocaine production and decrease in price, it’s a losing battle.

Source: nypost



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