How one man's case shines a light on Kensington drug trade

Jorge Balbuena was supposed to be a kingpin.

Arrested in 2015, Balbuena was accused by the federal government of leading an operation that distributed heroin, cocaine, and crack in Kensington. Prosecutors said he conspired to try to smuggle as much as 100 kilograms of heroin (about 220 pounds) into the United States from his native Dominican Republic, discussed smuggling routes for Colombian heroin, and sold drugs with coconspirators.

But when Balbuena, 31, was sentenced Wednesday to 63 months in federal prison for dealing about $50,000 of heroin in Philadelphia, it became clear that the drug-lord narrative didn’t hold up. He slept on couches in the city after losing a construction job, his lawyer said. Used whatever cash he could scratch together to feed his partying habit. And, often, he diluted his dope so severely that customers sought him out afterward, feeling as if they’d been ripped off.

“He’s really not a large-scale member of any drug organization,” defense attorney Luis Ortiz told U.S. District Judge Paul S. Diamond, an assessment with which prosecutors largely agreed in sentencing memos.

Balbuena may not have been a major player in Philadelphia’s booming heroin trade, but the criminal case against him still proves instructive. Interviews with city police, federal officials, and neighborhood activists reveal that Kensington’s heroin markets, on the street level, are largely a decentralized economy — a series of corners run by separate, small groups of dealers, as opposed to being controlled by large gangs or singularly powerful individuals.

The result, officials say, is a level of competition that helps keep drug prices low and purity levels high — and allows people like Balbuena to eke out some sales.

“There’s no big don that runs the whole area down here,” said Philadelphia Police Inspector Ray Convery, who leads East Division, which encompasses Kensington. “It’s all individual corners.”

Camera icon David Maialetti
Inspector Ray Convery, head of East Division. DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

The resolution of Balbuena’s case comes as city officials have pledged a major effort to combat the opioid crisis, convening a task force to develop comprehensive recommendations, and working to clean up and close a notorious railroad gulch that had become a magnet for heroin users

Other cities, including Los Angeles and Chicago, have long been associated with gang violence, and Long Island, N.Y., has experienced a recent surge in gang-related killings. But the sellers who dot Kensington’s corners are not nearly as connected to one another or to the rituals and symbols typically associated with hierarchical organizations, police say.

“Every block is a different crew up there,” said Patrick Trainor, spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Agency’s Philadelphia field office, which tends to focus on large-scale drug prosecutions. Philadelphia police, in addition to building cases against dealers, are responsible for patrolling the neighborhood to ensure safety for residents and make arrests where warranted.

Police Commissioner Richard Ross also believes that the competition could be fueling additional violence in the area: The 24th and 25th Police Districts, which encompass most of Kensington, had recorded 19 more homicides through mid-July than at the same point last year, he said.

The number of drug-related slayings citywide has also steadily increased, according to police statistics — from 26 in 2013 to 68 last year.

“With the increase in demand for heroin, in particular, it has sparked more competition,” Ross said in an interview this month. “Ergo, you’re getting a lot of violence that is stemming from it.”

Police recently deployed 30 additional bicycle officers in Kensington, and 20 more officers in the narcotics strike force there, Ross said. Officers also regularly use naloxone to treat overdose victims — more than 160 doses had been administered by officers in East Division through June, half of those in the last month. Where appropriate, police assist medics who sometimes spend large chunks of their shifts responding to reports of overdoses.

“It’s not little pockets,” medic Caleb Cummings, 33, said during a recent work shift in Kensington. “It’s thousands of people.”

Camera icon Chris Palmer
David Sullivan, left, a paramedic, and Brent Helvig, an EMT, treat a man suspected of overdosing on heroin on the 3300 block of Kensington Avenue.

Balbuena’s crew was not accused of any violent acts, but prosecutors said they sold heroin mostly around D Street and Indiana Avenue in 2014 and 2015, in the heart of Kensington’s drug markets.

Balbuena, a permanent U.S. resident — whose nickname, according to prosecutors, was Hansel — initially was painted as the leader of an eight-person operation, according to an indictment filed in December 2015.

The indictment said he obtained large quantities of heroin, then processed, remixed, and repackaged it for his members. It also said he talked to at least one person in the Dominican Republic about smuggling heroin into Philadelphia from that country and from Colombia. And he was accused of traveling to North Carolina with a member of his crew, Yan Mota Soto, to pick up a supply of drugs.

Prosecutors led by Assistant U.S. Attorney David Troyer later conceded that Balbuena was not, in fact, the group’s mastermind. His organization “worked together and performed different functions at different times, with no real structure or hierarchy,” prosecutors wrote in a sentencing memo. They also said the trip to North Carolina yielded no heroin.

Balbuena’s crew was most frequently accused of unwittingly selling drugs to undercover buyers. The indictment said Balbuena and his group sold amounts usually worth a few thousand dollars each. In one instance, the indictment said, a dealer named Elvin De Jesus sold 206 grams of fake heroin (nearly half a pound) to an undercover agent who was a regular customer of the crew.

Trainor, of the DEA, said corner groups often buy heroin in quantities as small as a few ounces to resell. He said that Mexican cartels are the main source of large shipments to the United States, although he and other officials were more circumspect about how drugs trickle out to the corners. Trainor said cartels sell heroin for about $60,000 per kilogram (2.2 pounds), about half the price of what producers in South Asian countries, such as Afghanistan or Thailand, had charged when they were dominant suppliers.

In 2015, the DEA unveiled a major case against the so-called Laredo Drug Trafficking Organization, a Mexican group whose members were accused of distributing more than 1,000 kilograms (2,200 pounds) of heroin to various locations in the United States, including Philadelphia and Camden.

Most dealers in Kensington, however, rarely handle such quantities, Trainor said. A bust this winter in Burholme, a joint effort by the DEA and the District Attorney’s Office, netted 13 kilograms of heroin (28 pounds), said by prosecutors to be one of the largest drug confiscations in city history.

“You could buy four ounces … and you could make a lot of bags [for resale] out of that,” Trainor said.

Most dealers sell bags of heroin for between $7 and $10 on the street. Convery said police try to track markings on bags to tie them to crews and monitor which strands might be causing overdoses. But keeping up is a challenge.

“They’ll put somebody else on the corners as fast as we lock them up,” he said.

Although Convery believes, as do many other police officials, that arrests alone will not make a sizable dent in the heroin problem, most say they remain committed to disrupting the drug trade — and seeking ways to reduce the violence that can come with it.

“They’re running a business down there,” Convery said. “I run a business to try and stop them.”

Balbuena pleaded guilty to selling 730 grams of heroin (1.6 pounds) over about 18 months. Six of the 17 counts against him were dropped in return for his plea.

Two of his coconspirators, De Jesus and Pedro Angel Montes-Perez, pleaded guilty as well. De Jesus is to be sentenced Tuesday; Montes-Perez was ordered in April to serve 30 months in prison.

Three others — Soto, Jose Garcia, and Ysidro Garcia — have been fugitives since 2015. Charges against another alleged participant, Gary Cuevas-Reyes, were dismissed last September. Court papers did not provide a reason.

Balbuena’s family sat in the back row of a federal courtroom Wednesday as he accepted his sentence. Speaking to the judge through an interpreter, he gave a nod to his supporters and asked for their forgiveness.

“This is not,” he said, “what they taught me to be.”