GOLDEN VALLEY, Minn. - Before heroin gets to Minnesota, it is smuggled through the southwest border. One of the towns it crosses into is Nogales, Arizona, which sees tens of thousands of people pass through it every day from Mexico.
"The heroin has increased exponentially," said Sgt. Eli Pile with the Pinal County Sheriff's Office.
Pinal County in Arizona is not on the border of Mexico but close and sees its share of smugglers backpacking through the barren and rigid terrain.
Although Pinal County and other law enforcement agencies work to stop drugs from spreading across their region, Pile admits they're only stopping a fraction.
"We are barely scratching the top. I mean not even 10 percent, it just comes across, it is constant," he said. And once the smugglers get on the highway system, it is increasingly difficult for law enforcement to stop them.
Smugglers use any means necessary to conceal the drugs from secret compartments in their vehicles to fake containers of food or water made to look like something innocent.
"If you even open it up it looks like some popcorn in there," said Det. Anthony Mendoza with the Anoka County Sheriff's Office as he showed a container. "But if you were to flip it over the bottom screws off. "
Dakota County Sheriff Dave Bellows says it is very likely drivers have come across drug smugglers without even knowing it.
"There is enough drugs coming into Minnesota, we all have driven next to these cars, these vehicles. The amount is considerable," said Sheriff Bellows. "It's not one person a day, it's multiple, multiple vehicles every day." "While the border of Mexico maybe 1800 miles away, you might as well assume that it's right here in the state of Minnesota," said Dan Moren, Special Agent in Charge for the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Moren says the Mexican drug cartels are in Minnesota and they're active.
"They control the manufacturing, the smuggling, the distribution, and collection of proceeds from heroin production," he said.
Production that has doubled since 2005 in large part due to the proliferation of prescription drug abuse like Vicoden or Oxycontin, said Moren.
When abused, those painkillers can provide a similar high but much more expensive than heroin.
"It's being marketed as a cheaper, stronger, alternative," said Moren about heroin.
Over several days, St. Paul Police gave KARE 11 rare access to their fight against heroin at home.
Both the St. Paul Police and the Ramsey County Violent Crimes Enforcement Team joined forces to combat the problem.
Some St. Paul Police officers patrol certain high traffic areas for drug dealing, while others with St. Paul and Ramsey County use intelligence in order to take down high and low-level sellers.
As a crew with KARE 11 watched, an undercover officer bought about $500 worth of heroin from a low-level seller in a parking lot not far from a strip mall in St. Paul.
Undercover officers were stationed all over in case things went bad, but the deal went perfectly.
Police did not take anyone into custody that day. But the following week, police made the arrest.
Buys like this can tell officers a lot. What kind of heroin is on the streets, how much it's going for, and it's purity level which at times in Minnesota is as high as 90-percent.
"Our goal with this person is to find the source of his supply and move up the food chain," said Robert Thomasser who heads St. Paul Police Department's Narcotics and Vice Unit.
And their efforts appear to be working.
The Ramsey County task force says it has seized more than half a million dollars worth of heroin this year alone.
The heroin gets to Minnesota a number of ways.
I-35 right from the southwest border is one way.
The other and more likely route, according to the DEA, is up the I-90/94 corridor from Chicago where the Sinola Cartel from Mexico has a virtual monopoly.
"They're going after that younger user group, swaying away from prescription drugs, from which they are not profiting, and getting them addicted to a drug that is profitable for the Mexican cartels," said Moren.
Two months after his 15th birthday, Jewel Turcotte found her son, Dylan dead of a heroin overdose in their home in Chanhassen.
"Realizing he is in heaven with God. He's in a better place. He doesn't have to deal with all this turmoil on Earth," said an emotional Turcotte.
While it is difficult to talk about the tragedy, Turcotte wanted to warn other parents that this can happen to anyone.
"Follow through and see what's going on," she said. "Obviously we're more aware of it and see that it is going on everywhere. It's an epidemic."
The family had no idea that Dylan had started experimenting with heroin, including his older brother Nate, a recovering meth addict who is almost done with treatment at Adult and Teen Challenge in Minneapolis.
"I wish that he wouldn't have seen some of the things I went through. It's hard," said Nate Turcotte.
They are a family filled with the pain of wondering what if about a child who was filled with so much potential cut short.
"I was excited to get to that age where he wanted to hang out with his big sister and that's what I'm going to miss most," said Dylan's sister, Kelsey Turcotte.
They urge people to pay attention to changes in their loved ones' behavior.
"It's a problem that can impact just about any family," said Thomasser.
It's what drives the St. Paul and Ramsey County officers every day because they and other drug units know the heroin highway in Minnesota is getting busier, and those traveling it are getting younger.
"It's tough, it's really tough," said Jewel Turcotte.