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Drug mills feed ravenous heroin market

This April 2011 photo provided by the Office

This April 2011 photo provided by the Office of the Special Narcotics Prosecutor for the City of New York shows the interior of a home in Fort Lee, N.J., where heroin was packaged. Photo Credit: AP

In many ways, the reputed drug dealers on Grandview Place were good neighbors.

Their two-story, redbrick home in the New York City suburb of Fort Lee, N.J., was perfectly ordinary, with its white trim, gable porch and manicured shrubbery. No noise or sketchy visitors drew unwanted attention, authorities say.

The only sign that something was amiss was the rented van that would disappear into a lower-level garage each day. The driver's job: to deliver immigrant workers from the inner city to package heroin in thousands upon thousands of glassine envelopes.

The Fort Lee operation represented the new, more serene face of the ever-thriving heroin trade in the New York City area, the drug's national epicenter, according to the Manhattan-based narcotics investigators who shut it down.

"It can still be a violent, dirty business, but it's changed," said Bill Cook, a veteran investigator with the Office of the Special Narcotics Prosecutor for New York City.

Absent are scenes out of films like "American Gangster," with kingpins flaunting their wealth and settling turf wars with brazen gunplay.

The new business model calls for more discretion and discipline, and better branding and quality control.

The heroin is purer and the users more mainstream, including college students and professionals who snort rather than shoot up.

Compared with past eras marked by images of junkies cooking the drug with a dirty spoon, heroin "doesn't have the same stigma attached to it," said John Gilbride, head of the Drug Enforcement Administration's New York office.

Yet, authorities say, more abuse by a broader customer base has taken a devastating human toll that's difficult to measure. Rehab centers report more people are seeking treatment, and there have been fatal overdoses.

Illegal drug retailers -- mainly Dominican immigrants supplied with Colombian heroin by Mexican cartels -- have steadily expanded their operations throughout the city and its suburbs.

"There are more mills, and they're better at what they do," Cook said.

Recent law enforcement raids have resulted in many arrests and larger and larger seizures. They've also given colorful insight into the operations: One mill was in a newly renovated apartment in midtown Manhattan that rented for $3,800 a month.

Authorities say a big spike in the amount of drugs seized shows that suppliers are working overtime to the meet the escalating demand.

When authorities raided the Fort Lee home in April, they came across an emblematic scene: The young daughter of one of the mill workers was at the kitchen table eating cereal and watching cartoons.

On the same table were boxes stuffed with glassine envelopes. About five pounds of heroin and $50,000 in cash were found.

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