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DEA to take command in Camden County drug war

Most drug dealers in Camden probably have no idea what the acronym HIDTA stands for until they're face down on a street corner in handcuffs.

Most drug dealers in Camden probably have no idea what the acronym HIDTA stands for until they're face down on a street corner in handcuffs.

Since 1995, the Philadelphia-Camden High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) joint task force has been combatting violent drug activity in the city and its surrounding suburbs with a unique lineup of local, state and federal law-enforcement agencies.

Come January, the Drug Enforcement Administration, an agency that sources say has been conspicuously absent from Camden's HIDTA initiative for years, will take over day-to-day operations from the Camden County Prosecutor's Office, the agency that has run the initiative there almost since its inception.

DEA officials say that they're simply a new "quarterback" on the same team, but the prosecutor's office, and, according to sources, at least one federal law-enforcement agency, are concerned that Camden's HIDTA might have a whole new game plan with the DEA behind the center.

"We're a team player and will do what has to be done and we'll get the job done," said county prosecutor Warren Faulk. "But we certainly have concerns about this that we're going to have to see about."

Chief among those concerns, Faulk said, is whether the DEA will focus solely on large-scale busts and prosecution of major drug organizations while excluding street-level drug dealing that affects the daily lives of city residents.

"We don't have thresholds," Faulk said, "We'll prosecute anyone."

New Jersey Attorney General Anne Milgram, who spearheaded the HIDTA reorganization, said that she felt that the Camden task force could have been more "effective" and needed to bring back federal partners "who walked away" from the program over the years.

The prosecutor's office claims that its HIDTA initiative has met or exceeded the national program's parameters for arrests and seizures annually.

Today the task force was to announce results of a 22-month-long investigation into a multimillion-dollar marijuana and methamphetamine ring that stretched from South Jersey to Mexico and resulted in up to 30 arrests in two states.

Milgram said that the reorganization will free investigators and officers from both the prosecutor's office and the city's police department to focus on those street-level issues, which, she says, is their responsibility.

"The goal [with HIDTA] is to do long-term, often complex, cases," she said during a recent interview. "The goal is not to do what the police department and the . . . prosecutor's office does every day. We're basically giving officers back to do what they do on their day-to-day jobs."

Camden Police Chief Scott Thomson, a former member of HIDTA, did not return several phone calls or e-mails for comment, but the reorganization means that both he and Faulk will each get approximately a dozen officers back. Without HIDTA funding, however, Faulk doubted whether he or Thomson would have the money to provide those officers with the wiretaps, vehicles, cameras, undercover "buy" money, or even office space, available through the task force's $750,000 annual budget.

Gerard P. McAleer, special agent in charge of DEA's New Jersey division, declined to comment on the number of agents that DEA will be bringing to HIDTA or how large the task force would be. He said that the DEA was not "full time" with Camden's HIDTA initiative in the past but has collaborated on operations there.

"Camden needs all the help it can get now," McAleer said. "We're going to add a value."

Sources familiar with HIDTA said that the Philadelphia office of the FBI was opposed to the reorganization. A spokesman there said that Janice Fedarcyk, the special agent in charge, would not comment on the issue.