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Baltimore's Drug Game: As DEA Battles To End Trade, Turf Wars Fuel City Violence

BALTIMORE (WJZ) -- It's a nationwide epidemic, but here in Baltimore, the drug trade continues to decimate the city.

Drug leaders are flooding Baltimore with the most lethal opioids around -- spawning murder and overdoses -- and it's all a battle over clientele, money and power.

The 911 calls and crime are a constant cycle of bloodshed that's ripped families apart and left others scared to walk in their own neighborhoods.

Baltimore continues to grapple with violence that's simply unprecedented, and the gunfire is mostly fueled by the drug game.

"We are in the midst of tragedy, overdoses, fatalities that we have not seen ever in this country," said Don Hibbert, an Assistant Special Agent In Charge at the Baltimore's division of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

Rick Ritter: How much of a role does the drug industry play in that homicide count?

Don Hibbert: It's a huge role -- a huge role.

It's an epidemic that's plaguing our city like never before. Day after day, corner after corner, the drug deals are helping power neighborhoods and even Baltimore's economy.

"Hundreds of drug shops throughout the city -- huge profit margins," Hibbert said.

The deadliest opioids make their way onto the streets. It's a cash business that's wheeling and dealing more than ever.

RR: How much drug money would you say is on the streets of Baltimore?

DH: Millions of dollars at any given time.

RR: Daily?

DH: Daily.

For Hibbert and the DEA, they are trying to stop it.

"There's a sensational appetite for the drugs and the cartels know it," he said.

Some dealers traveling all the way across the country to deliver the best high to Baltimore.

"One of our investigations a couple of years ago, we actually discovered traffickers from Baltimore that we were able to track into Mexico -- meeting with the cartels, sampling the product," Hibbert said.

More potent than heroin and less expensive, fentanyl is changing the game entirely.

"It's all over the place, various drug shops run by different networks or drug traffickers throughout the city and each one is in their own unique territory," said Hibbert. "And if anyone tries to sell in there, it leads to a level of violence we're seeing."

Baltimore is a hot spot due to the demand and its prime location on the I-95 corridor.

"Baltimore was always known as a user type city," said Hibbert. "Now it's become almost a source city for other areas. We see people coming from as far away as Virginia, Western Pennsylvania to get specifically fentanyl. We're seeing it as a source city."

In 2018, the DEA seized $28 million worth of assets.

Undercover video shows suspects pulling kilo after kilo out of a truck that the DEA eventually stopped and searched.

"We're consistently coming across six-figure seizures -- $100,000, $200,00, $300,000 and in some cases millions in drug profits -- just laying around apartments and homes in Baltimore," he said.

But a seizure can sometimes have a devastating fallout: crushing one drug shop leaves a neighborhood short on opioids that could potentially spark a turf war over the demand that remains.

"In this case, it crippled the organization," said Hibbert. "What we were concerned about -- who would fill that void?"

"Unfortunately a lot of times you could end up seeing a level of violence might increase when you take a big group out like this one," he added. "These organizations, when they select a territory where they're going to sell from, they don't want other people coming in and selling drugs in their territory."

Despite the homicide count and a punishing overdose rate for the entire state, the hope is that a turnaround is already in progress.

RR: A lot of people out there are losing hope in this city with violence and drugs -- what's your message to them?

DH: This will not work unless we all work together. This is strictly not a law enforcement problem. Every seizure we make, I view it as a lifesaver, because we just prevented quantities of drugs reaching people and them overdosing.

In 2018, Baltimore's DEA division was no. 8 in total assets seized with around $28 million -- that's more than some division that has double, even triple the population size of Baltimore.

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