By Bruce Olsen
ST. LOUIS (Reuters) - More than 50 suspected heroin dealers were rounded up on Tuesday in the largest operation against heroin trafficking in St. Louis history, authorities said.
The arrests came after officers from 33 law enforcement agencies, led by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, developed cases against individuals across a seven-county area centered in the city of St. Louis, where there have been 57 deaths from heroin overdoses this year, DEA spokeswoman Karin Caito said.
The entire St. Louis region, which has more than five times the population as the city, saw 60 overdose deaths from heroin in 2010. The DEA said heroin overdose deaths have doubled since 2007 in St. Louis and St. Louis County, and tripled in neighboring St. Charles County.
"This strike is the first of its kind in the area and is a response to a public outcry caused by an increase use of heroin in the whole area," Caito said.
"This is not just an urban drug anymore. It has been gaining in popularity in the suburbs and rural areas, even in the high schools."
The arrests, ranging from southern Illinois to Franklin and Lincoln County in Missouri, were part of the first phase of an operation aimed at sending a message to heroin traffickers, DEA Special Agent in Charge Harry Sommers said.
"We will continue to target with vigor those using and bringing heroin into our communities. We are working to save lives and keep communities safe," he said, adding that arrests would continue, with the aim of arresting more than 100 alleged dealers.
Heroin, once seen as an urban phenomenon with a fairly stable population of users, has drawn increasing attention from communities and law enforcement over the past five years, transformed by a new supply of nearly pure heroin from Afghanistan.
The quality increase has led to a drug that no longer has be injected in the veins but can be smoked or snorted, the Department of Justice said in its 2010 National Drug Threat Assessment.
"As a result, the price of the drug is decreasing and the number of heroin-related overdoses and deaths are on the rise," the assessment said.
Increased heroin use, especially among teenagers and young adults, has been reported this year in New York, Chicago, Seattle and many other American cities. There has also been an increase in suburban and rural areas, especially in the Midwest, agents said.
A regional attack on the problem was announced in April by St. Louis area police chiefs, noting the new potency and the rise in overdose deaths.
"Some of these young people have no idea what they are putting into their system," St. Louis County Police Chief Tim Fitch said, noting increased prevalence, even in high schools.
Lesley Levin, president of Behavioral Health Response in St. Louis, a help center for drug users, said heroin use is now commonplace.
"They're no longer people on skid row," she said. "They're your neighbors. It's a very scary epidemic."
Across the Mississippi River in Illinois, Madison County Sheriff Robert Hertz pointed to another aspect of the problem earlier this year -- a rise in crime committed by addicts to support their habit.
Hertz said the number of residential burglaries or attempted residential burglaries had nearly doubled in Madison County through the first eight months of 2011.
(Editing by James B. Kelleher and Greg McCune)