ST. LOUIS (AP) -- Federal and local authorities launched a massive roundup Tuesday targeting heroin traffickers, arresting nearly 50 and hoping to more than double that as they try to put a big dent in the region's growing problem with the drug.
Most suspects were arrested at homes, but not all. One woman was arrested as she began her shift as a hairdresser at a barber shop. The suspects ranged in age from teenagers to 68.
By midday, nearly 50 traffickers were in custody. The arrests so far occurred without any problems, said Jim Shroba, assistant special agent for the Drug Enforcement Administration office in St. Louis. The DEA's St. Louis agent in charge, Harry Sommers, told The Associated Press that all told, 104 traffickers were expected to be arrested, though it could be days or even weeks before they are all in custody.
The targeted traffickers are not part of an organized group, Sommers said. He hoped the arrests would send a strong message to other traffickers as well as dealers and users.
"Today isn't the silver bullet, but this is the beginning of us making our statement and pushing back," Sommers said.
The arrests come amid growing concerns about heroin. An often deadly form of ultra-potent heroin is selling for as little as $10 a bag. The newer heroin is so potent that some users die before they can remove the syringe from their veins. That increased purity also makes heroin more attractive to suburban kids and middle-class users because it doesn't have to be injected. It can be smoked or snorted and still create a high.
"So they don't necessarily have to stick a needle in their arm," Sommers said. "To the youthful mind, you might call that a junkie. But they think someone snorting it is a recreational user."
St. Louis County Police Chief Tim Fitch said earlier this year that heroin deaths in the county in 2011 were on pace to double from 2010. He was so concerned about the problem that he began scheduling regular meetings at high school auditoriums to alert the public about the dangers of the drug.
Sommers said the DEA and police agencies decided to work together on a broad investigation that began in July. The approximately 150 officers involved in the arrests on Tuesday were from the DEA, Illinois State Police and about two dozen local agencies in Lincoln, St. Charles, Jefferson and St. Louis counties in Missouri, St. Louis city, and Madison and St. Clair counties in Illinois.