A few years ago, a police car entering Colony Square — a tightly packed 88-home St. Mary’s County community where drug deals, prostitution, and illegal dogfights were open secrets — might have been struck by rocks and bottles thrown by neighborhood teens.

“They used to tell us, ‘Never go in without another officer,’” said Kristi Nelson, a county sheriff’s officer assigned to Colony Square four years ago.

But on a recent August afternoon, the streets were quiet as Nelson drove her cruiser through the Lexington Park neighborhood. Colony Square is improving, many with ties to the community say, and they attribute much of its turnaround — marked by neighborhood cleanup and the evictions and arrests of problem tenants — to the efforts of local, state and federal law enforcement to fight illegal drugs in the county during the past five years.

Authorities say they have dismantled five major drug rings and put more than 100 defendants behind bars. Many were prosecuted in federal court, where drug sentences are often stiff. Now, they say, having crippled the county’s crack cocaine and marijuana businesses, they are turning to burgeoning prescription drug and heroin abuse.

A ‘ripple effect’

Drug-related crime occupies much of law enforcement’s attention in St. Mary’s. The sheriff’s office said it sees a “ripple effect” because many robberies, burglaries and assaults in the county are related to drug activity.

Decades of law enforcement efforts had little impact on the county’s drug activity, admits Sheriff Timothy Cameron: They occasionally prosecuted street dealers or buyers, but state sentencing guidelines were relatively light and the arrests did little to stop the growth of drug rings in St. Mary’s.

“When you take the salesman off the street, you don’t affect the upper levels of drug rings,” said Cameron, a former narcotics detective who was elected in 2005. “We weren’t seizing large amounts of drugs or significant assets.”

Tired of hearing the same names of alleged drug dealers since he started as a St. Mary’s patrol officer in 1980, Cameron called in backup.

Concerned that the county’s efforts were accomplishing little more than driving street-corner deals underground, Cameron reached out to state and federal law enforcement to coordinate a long-term strategy. He also created a division within the sheriff’s office dedicated to investigating vice and narcotics.

With federal help, authorities say, St. Mary’s officials have penetrated larger organizations with the use of wiretaps, with which the county had little previous experience, among other techniques.

Authorities have put people in jail who were long thought “untouchable” in the county, Cameron said. “We’ve even been able to identify people we didn’t even know were major, major dealers.”

In one recent investigation, 11 suspects allegedly connected to one drug ring were indicted in July. Officials say they expect additional arrests and indictments in connection with the case.

“It’s not the level of organization you would see in D.C. or Baltimore,” said Rod J. Rosenstein, U.S. attorney for the District of Maryland. “But there are established hierarchies and roles in these organizations: folks who import the drugs from out of state, folks who sell drugs at the retail level.”

Fearing retaliation

Well-kept two-story brick houses line the entrance to Colony Square. Inside, some rows of homes — mostly rented, some vacant and many slightly run-down — are covered with graffiti. Fence posts are knocked down; weeds poke through cracked sidewalks.

Robin Finnacom, president of St. Mary’s County Community Development Corporation, a local nonprofit, said residents have sometimes been reluctant to report illegal activity because they feared retaliation.

“There were a lot of drug deals that were pretty obvious, a lot of negative behavior that was intimidating and illegal,” said Finnacom, who led a community-wide effort to clean up Colony Square last year. Some told her people involved in drug deals would watch the neighborhood’s only entrance, warning others when police approached.

“The residents felt under siege,” Finnacom said.

As a result, Nelson says, encouraging homeowners and property managers to take action has been a challenge.

“They’ve started to come forward now,” Nelson said. “My biggest thing has been assuring them that they will stay anonymous.” Still, she says one recently reported that her fence was knocked down and her car spray-painted when she was suspected of tipping off police.

Rob Martin, 56, has lived in Colony Square for 20 years. He has worked with neighbors to clean up trash and says he would like children to feel safe playing outside.

“It’s been a slow progress, but I guess a steady one,” Martin said.

“I don’t see as many unwanted visitors come to our area,” said Linda Thomas, who has lived in the neighborhood for more than a decade. “There has been a recent major cleanup in our area.”

A strategy meeting

“Look before you put your hand in there,” said Capt. Daniel Alioto to colleagues during a recent sheriff’s office strategy meeting as he recalled searches of suspects’ belongings. “I found used needles in a toothbrush canister and toolbox the other day.”

Authorities say drug activity in St. Mary’s is typical of suburban areas within a few hours of larger cities, where local dealers get often their supply.

Trends spotted closer to the District may take a year to arrive in St. Mary’s, says Richard Fritz, St. Mary’s state’s attorney, but they pose the same challenges — including violence, addiction and other drug-related crime — to law enforcement and the community.

Crack cocaine and marijuana have long dominated the southern Maryland drug scene, authorities said. But in recent years, they have been largely replaced with prescription drugs and heroin, officials said.

Prescription drug abuse has increased nationwide, according to Drug Enforcement Administration officials, and authorities say the shift in St. Mary’s may be a result of the crackdown on cocaine and marijuana.

“One of the realities, locally, when you press like this, is you affect supply and demand,” said Cameron. “Supply goes down, people have to go in search of other drugs.”

Maryland is one of a handful of states that has yet to implement a prescription drug monitoring program allowing law enforcement officials to track activities such as “doctor shopping,” in which patients go from doctor to doctor angling for a desired prescription.

Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley signed program legislation in May, and state officials expect the law to take effect in October. Alioto said he expects the program to help curb the diversion of prescription drugs.

Prescription painkillers are the “number one drug we’re combating right now,” said Alioto, who runs the county’s vice narcotics division. One pill can sell for $80, he said. “We must get away from the mindset that it’s ‘just pills,’” he said.

Dealers and users he has seen in the county include teens — and a 65-year-old woman recently caught selling painkillers at a local farmer’s market.

Cameron says he plans to continue working with state and federal law enforcement to combat the drug trade in his county even as he shifts focus to new drugs, users and dealers.

“We’re certainly not ready to say we’ve claimed victory,” Cameron said. “We still have a lot of work to do, and probably always will.”