Heroin Hits Home: Small Airlines Are The Drug’s Major Inroad

Heroin confiscated by law enforcement. – Photo courtesy of Alaska State Troopers
Heroin confiscated by law enforcement. – Photo courtesy of Alaska State Troopers

Federal officials say they intercepted nearly ten times as much heroin coming into Alaska in 2014 than compared to 2013. State law enforcement officials say heroin gets into Bethel mainly on low-security, small airline passenger flights. This is the final story in a series about the impacts of heroin in Bethel.

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Bethel City Manager, Ann Capela, says the trouble heroin is causing in Bethel requires a coordinated campaign not unlike the one that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security developed with the goal of rooting out terrorists. Although Bethel’s heroin campaign is on a smaller scale, it uses the same slogan:

“If you see something, say something,” said Capela.

Capela, who was hired about six months ago, says the city doesn’t have the capacity to take on multinational drug rings, so the community must work together to root out dealers and traffickers, who have set in motion a slew of problems impacting everything from OCS cases to fire and police calls.

citymanager-bethel
Ann Capela, Bethel City Manager. Photo by Geraldine Brink/KYUK

“We need the information from the community. We don’t have the manpower to be, but we need to be our eyes and ears [about] what’s going on. They need to let us know,” said Capela.

Capela says the idea is to support a grassroots effort already brewing in the community. One aspect of the campaign promotes a tip line that goes straight to the Alaska State Troopers Western Alaska Alcohol & Narcotics Team– or WAANT. Capela says the city also hopes to work with social services and health care providers, tribes and others to get addicts the help they need to quit.

At a meeting in which the Bethel City Council tasked city administration with making a heroin action plan, Councilmember Mark Springer said the heroin problems have gotten so bad, that they need to call in reinforcements.

“We would be happy to see as much law enforcement pressure as possible against people who are importing narcotics into Bethel and selling them here. As I said before, it’s criminal conspiracy, it’s organized crime in no uncertain terms,” said Springer.

Alan Wilson, a supervisor with the Drug Enforcement Administration in Anchorage, says law enforcement needs tips from people on the ground in Bethel to help.

Wilson says it’s happening across the country. After regulators cracked down on prescription drugs, like Oxycontin, and reformulated them to be less attractive to addicts, heroin found a market again.

“We have drug traffickers that we know have contacts in Mexico and they purchase their heroin either in Mexico or on the border of Mexico in the United States and they ship it up to Alaska,” said Wilson.

Doreen O’Brien testifies about heroin before the Bethel City Council. Photo by Dean Swope/KYUK
Doreen O’Brien testifies about heroin before the Bethel City Council. Photo by Dean Swope/KYUK

Todd Moehring is an investigator with WAANT. He says heroin makes its way to Bethel and other bush communities, in smaller quantities.

“We’re not receiving pounds directly from Mexico on a freight aircraft or something like that, but we’re receiving user amounts. Typically what we’ve learned so far is that most of the dealers have roughly a gram of heroin or more, so that’s usually around 10 hits on a user level, maybe up to an ounce or so – again, because we are at the end of the line,” said Moehring.

Moehring says they’re after source dealers and traffickers. He says it’s coming through mail, freight services and the port. But he says a lot comes in simply on passengers on smaller airlines serving Bethel.

“Smaller airlines that operate under different federal rules, and the security screening is not the same as we get for your larger commercial jets. So folks are carrying drugs in their baggage, they’re carrying it on their person, in their clothing, they’re also doing it on internal body carry,” said Moehring.

Under federal regulation small airlines, which carry less than 50 passengers, are not required to participate in TSA screening. A spokesperson forRAVN Alaska, the main smaller airline that serves Bethel, declined to go on tape. She said via email: “It’s not our policy to search bags. If we have reasonable suspicion that someone may have an illegal substance or item in their bag, we pull the bag and call the troopers or local police authority.” City Manager Capela says she wonders if a drug dog would help.

“I don’t know whether we would require a K-9 unit that looks at the cargo when it comes down. A K-9 unit just as people are going by,” said Capela.

Troopers with the WAANT team say they have requested a drug dog for their Bethel office, but state of Alaska officials say they don’t have the resources to provide one. Moehring says the Anchorage WAANT office just got a drug dog to stop the flow of heroin and other narcotics out of the city. The dog is funded by the North Slope Borough, and will focus on that region but could also be used to follow up on tips from Bethel.

Bethel WAANT tip line: (800) 478-2294

This is the final story in a 3-part KYUK series.Click here for part 1 and part 2.

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Daysha Eaton is the News Director at KBBI in Homer. Daysha Eaton holds a B.A. from Evergreen State College, and a M.A. from the University of Southern California. Daysha got her start in radio at Seattle public radio stations, KPLU and KUOW. Before coming to KBBI, she was the News Director at KYUK in Bethel. She has also worked as the Southcentral Reporter for KSKA in Anchorage. Daysha's work has appeared on NPR's "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered", PRI's "The World" and "National Native News". She's happy to take assignments, and to get news tips, which are best sent via email. Daysha became a journalist because she believes in the power of storytelling. Stories connect us and they help us make sense of our world. They shed light on injustice and they comfort us in troubled times. She got into public broadcasting because it seems to fulfill the intention of the 4th Estate and to most effectively apply the freedom of the press granted to us through the Constitution. She feels that public radio has a special way of moving people emotionally through sound, taking them to remote places, introducing them to people they would not otherwise meet and compelling them to think about issues they might ordinarily overlook.