SNOHOMISH — At first it probably just looked like a couple of friends dropping by for a visit.
Two men pulled up in a silver Mercedes outside a Snohomish apartment Wednesday afternoon, and two others, who’d come out of the building on Fourth Street, walked up to the car and started chatting.
Moments later an army of police and federal agents converged on the Mercedes. All four men took off running but didn’t get far.
Inside that Mercedes were four kilograms, or nearly nine pounds, of Mexican brown heroin, potentially worth millions of dollars on the street, according to court records released this week. The high-quality heroin likely came straight from Mexico, more specifically from the violent Sinaloa drug cartel.
“That variety, the Mexican brown heroin, showing up means there is a direct pipeline to the cartel out of Mexico right to Snohomish County,” Snohomish Police Chief John Flood said.
On Thursday, Flood hosted a public forum about the heroin epidemic that drew about 200 people to Snohomish High School. The forum was planned well before Wednesday’s arrests. Most who came out were parents of students in the district’s high schools and middle schools.
Heroin isn’t a big city problem anymore. It reached the suburbs a few years ago, and more young people are experimenting with the highly addictive opiate than ever before.
Flood said he was struck by the number of people at the forum who asked questions centered around addiction and treatment options.
“That tells me that the message is getting out there that arresting addicts doesn’t fix the problem,” Flood said.
The drug dealers have found a bustling, money-making market in Snohomish County.
Wednesday’s arrests were the result of an investigation by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Agents used confidential informants to allegedly buy heroin from Juan Carlos Andrade Bueno, 32, who was living in the Snohomish apartment, according to a probable cause affidavit filed earlier this week.
The police chief said Friday that the building is relatively quiet, and it hasn’t generated calls to 911. It wasn’t a place that officers noticed a stream of short-stay traffic, which often is a sign of ongoing drug deals.
Bueno allegedly first gave the informants heroin samples, and later introduced them to his methamphetamine source, detectives wrote. Police are seeing a resurgence of meth, likely also coming from labs in Mexico.
At a third meeting, Bueno allegedly arranged for an informant to take a pickup truck and instructed the buyer how to access a concealed compartment, which contained a kilogram of heroin. The informant later paid Bueno $34,000.
The two then arranged another sale for later in the week.
The informant met with Bueno at his apartment Wednesday. Bueno allegedly called his supplier and the two waited for the drop.
The Mercedes arrived about 1:25 p.m. Wednesday outside the apartment. The driver and his passenger showed Bueno and the informant a box in the backseat. Detectives later obtained a warrant to search the car. They allegedly found about four kilograms of heroin inside the box, according to police reports. The wholesale value is about $134,000.
The retail, or street value, is much higher, potentially in the millions of dollars. By the time heroin of that purity hits the street, it’s been cut with other substances, stretching the supply, Flood said.
Police arrested Bueno’s alleged suppliers, Daniel Gallardo-Hernandez, 26, and Isaac Mariano Meza-Espinoza, 22. Both are not U.S. citizens, police reported.
Meza-Espinoza was involved in another Homeland Security investigation in 2014. He was just 20 when he was in a vehicle that an informant planned to meet to buy four kilograms of heroin. Police found a loaded .22-caliber handgun on the floorboard.
“Meza-Espinoza was supposed to follow up with investigators, but never did and investigators have not been able to locate him to date,” the detective wrote in court papers.
Detectives suspect that Gallardo-Hernandez is the leader of the local drug organization. Bueno allegedly bragged to the informants that he also sells guns, according to court papers.
The three men were booked for investigation of drug trafficking. They were being held on $250,000.