Authorities have arrested dozens of gang members on federal and state charges in connection with the sale of fentanyl-laced heroin and other narcotics on Chicago’s West Side that led to untold numbers of overdoses and deaths, the U.S. attorney’s office announced Thursday.
The joint investigation by the Chicago Police Department, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and federal prosecutors targeted members of the Unknown Vice Lords street gang who were believed to be running the illegal drug operation.
The investigation, code-named Operation Sweet Dreams, resulted in charges against at least 65 defendants, 18 of them in federal court. Authorities seized heroin, cocaine, fentanyl, guns and cash as they made mass arrests early Thursday.
A news conference has been scheduled for 2 p.m. at the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse.
The investigation began in 2015 when the Chicago police narcotics unit began to suspect that the sale of fentanyl-laced heroin on the West Side was to blame for more than 70 drug overdoses that were reported during a 72-hour period that fall. The Chicago Tribune first reported on the overdoses.
The Cook County medical examiner’s office later confirmed that 40 people died from using fentanyl through the first nine months of 2015, more than double the 19 deaths in all of 2014.
Drug dealers cut heroin with fentanyl to make a more potent product. The powerful, euphoria-inducing narcotic — used legally as a painkiller when it’s ingested by itself — is 30 to 50 times more potent than heroin and significantly increases the risk of overdose deaths.
Dealers have set up shop on Chicago’s West Side along the Eisenhower Expressway, garnering it the nickname “Heroin Highway” because of the significant population of drug users who travel the road from the suburbs.
Authorities have said that much of the heroin sales were run by Unknown Vice Lords, a powerful West Side gang that does its business in neighborhoods near the highway.