The war against the illegal opioid trade continued on March 28 in New Haven federal court, as New Haven resident Bienvenido Gonzalez was sentenced to 12 years in prison for trafficking heroin, followed by five years under supervised release.

Described by federal prosecutors as the leader of a sizeable drug trafficking organization operating in the greater New Haven area, Gonzalez pleaded guilty to conspiracy to possess with the intent to distribute one or more kilograms of heroin and distribution of the same, in accordance with a plea agreement. His initial arrest came on March 16, 2017, according to a press release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office, and he has since remained in custody.

In its sentencing memorandum, the government outlined the extensive investigation that preceded the arrests, including cooperative witnesses and informants, court-authorized wiretaps and undercover purchases of heroin. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Haven pointed to the efforts of the Drug Enforcement Agency’s New Haven Tactical Diversion Squad as instrumental in the investigation. The squad is a collaboration between local, state and federal law enforcement agencies to combat the illegal drug trade.

In an interview with the News, David Hartman, public information officer at the New Haven Police Department, stressed the limited impact of drug busts.

“This is certainly not solving the problem: It is solving a part of the problem,” he said. “The opioid crisis in this city and this state and this country is not something that we are going to deal with by arresting our way out.”

Hartman emphasized the importance of collaboration with public health and outreach workers, emergency medical personnel and, most importantly, the community. He pointed to the magnitude of the task before them, saying the fight to resolve the opioid crisis would continue for the foreseeable future. He also emphasized that cocaine and heroin are not the only issues, saying that prescription pill addicts remain one of the largest sources of concern.

In its sentencing memorandum, federal prosecutors argued that the gravity of Gonzalez’ crime and the extent of his past criminal history warranted the harshest possible sentence under the terms of the plea agreement. In addition to the original heroin charges brought against him, a superseding indictment delivered by a grand jury in Bridgeport last June added counts for cocaine possession with the intent to distribute and conspiracy to distribute. These charges were dropped in the plea deal.

The plea agreement specified a guideline range of 121 to 151 months of imprisonment, a fine ranging from $30,000 to $10 million and supervised release for a minimum of 5 years. The agreement also stipulated that a sentence of 120 months of imprisonment would be mandatory for the defendant. Gonzalez submitted a sentencing memorandum asking for a sentence of 120 months in prison. In the final sentence, Judge Jeffrey Meyer imposed no fine aside from a $100 fee. As a condition of his release, Gonzalez will also have to seek substance abuse treatment at his own expense, in addition to obtaining educational or vocational training.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office said the trafficking ring included six of Gonzalez’ family members in addition to 17 other people. According to the court docket, Bienvenido Gonzalez’ brother Antonio Gonzalez also pleaded guilty to the same crime on January 18, though he has not been sentenced.

Lieutenant Karl Jacobson of the New Haven Police Department emphasized the importance of large drug-ring busts in the context of their related criminal effects. He said suspects entangled in drug-running schemes may offer insight into associated crime.

“We deal with gun violence in the city. Some of the defendants who are caught might provide information on prior homicides or shootings,” he said. “On the flip side, with the heroin epidemic that we are going through, [while] they may not be putting out tainted heroin, they are putting out so much heroin that some proportion [of it] may be mixed with fentanyl on the street.”

Aside from homicides and the risk of fentanyl contamination, Jacobson pointed to the rise in property crime that comes with increased heroin consumption. Fighting these crimes means further costs for the city, he said.

Opioid addiction in Connecticut is a major problem. In 2017, there were 474 heroin-related deaths in the state, and over a thousand people accidentally died due to opioid intoxication. Mark Jenkins, the executive director of the Greater Hartford Harm Reduction Coalition, emphasized the broad economic nature of the situation and the role prescription drugs play in the opioid epidemic.

“It’s market and demand: The United States makes up about 5 percent of the world’s population, but we consume upward of 80 percent of the world’s prescription [opioid] drugs,” he said.

“Eighty percent of people who experience opioid-use disorder started with pharmaceutical medication. If people switch to an illicit drug, it is because they can’t afford prescription drugs.”

Jenkins explained that the illicit drug industry will exist so long as there is market demand for it. And harsher penalties with stricter enforcement will not solve the problem, he said. More draconian penalties, he argued, would fall disproportionately on impoverished and minority neighborhoods, where centers of drug activity are often located. He drew parallels to the stiff system of federal penalties imposed in the 1990s, cautioning against the looming specters of sentencing disparities and inequity.

In 2016, there were more than 63,600 drug overdose deaths in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Keshav Raghavan | keshav.raghavan@yale.edu