A Batavia man is observed by police officers circling a block and driving erratically on Tuesday afternoon in a part of Chicago's West Side where heroin is sold daily.
About 30 minutes later, Illinois State Police stop the man while he's driving his SUV west on I-88 near Oak Brook. After searching the vehicle, they find marijuana and take him into custody.
It was just one example amid six arrests, three drug-related, that happened during a daylong undercover operation that state police organized to combat heroin trafficking. They invited the media to accompany them but imposed strict sanctions on photography and access to suspects.
During Operation Heroin Highway, at least 38 officers from multiple law enforcement agencies went to the West Side to watch drug transactions take place. Police then followed the buyers to the expressway, where uniformed state troopers made arrests.
Officials say Tuesday's effort is part of a larger one to combat the problem of heroin flowing into and throughout Illinois.
"The exploding trafficking and use of heroin throughout Illinois is having a devastating impact on families and communities," state police Director Hiram Grau said in a statement. "It's no longer limited to street narcotics dealing because the market is here and the highways have become dangerous distribution points."
Dubbed the Heroin Highway, the Eisenhower Expressway is considered a major drug trafficking route for marijuana, heroin and cocaine, authorities say.
State police Lt. Steve Loan said there's a big problem with heroin spreading from the city into the suburbs.
DuPage County experienced a record number of heroin deaths last year when 46 people, including five teens, died from the drug.
Last year, the DuPage Metropolitan Enforcement Group made 252 arrests. Officials said 53 of the arrests resulted in heroin-related charges. In addition, there was a more than 300 percent increase in heroin seizures and purchases last year compared to 2012.
Heroin use is on the rise because criminal organizations are creating heroin that's more pure than it was just a decade ago. As a result, first-time users no longer need to stick needles in their arms to try the drug.
"Everyone wants to start out just snorting it," Loan said. "But pretty soon their tolerance builds up quite rapidly, and they're not able to snort it to get the same feeling. So they end up having to turn to IV drug use. It's just the nature of the drug."
And once heroin users are addicted, they're willing to risk the possibility of getting arrested or robbed to get their fix.
"They can't control their cravings," Loan said.
So even though Tuesday's operation was done in the middle of the day, authorities knew there would be arrests.
Officers who participated in the operation included state police, representatives of four narcotics task forces, and members of the Chicago, Downers Grove, Itasca, Oak Brook, Naperville, Hoffman Estates and Lake in the Hills police departments.
"The whole goal of this detail today was to try to put a dent in the pipeline between Chicago and the Western suburbs," Loan said.
Loan said the dealers prefer to stay on the West Side of the city because it's easier for people from the suburbs to make the trip to buy drugs.
But that creates another problem: Addicts often will stop and use heroin or other drugs in the city before they get back on the expressway.
"A lot of them will get into that narcotic stupor and pass out at the wheel," Loan said. "That creates a risk for the motoring public."