Pellets, planes and the new frontier

CHEAP FIX: HEROIN'S RESURGENCE

Pellets, planes and the new frontier

How Mexican heroin cartels are targeting small-town America

CHEAP FIX: HEROIN'S RESURGENCE

Pellets, planes and the new frontier

How Mexican heroin cartels are targeting small-town America

Published on September 24, 2015

DAYTON, Ohio

He practiced with baby carrots, swallowing them whole, easing them down his throat with yogurt. Later came the heroin pellets, each loaded with 14 grams of powder, machine-wrapped in wax paper and thick latex. Long gone were the days of swallowing hand-knotted, drug-filled condoms. The Mexican drug trafficking organizations were always perfecting their craft.

On this trip, Gerardo A. Vargas would swallow 71 pellets — a full kilo, just over two pounds, enough for as many as 30,000 hits at $10 a pop on American streets. And so before he set off on his 3,900-mile journey from Uruapan, Mexico, Vargas had been given the rules: No soda, because it could erode the pellets’ wrapping. No orange juice, either. Drink only water. He was told which airports to avoid, which places to go, his every move orchestrated by his handler in Mexico.

About this story: From the countryside of New England to the cities of the Midwest, the most deadly epidemic of heroin use in half a century is tearing at the fabric of American life. In this series of articles, The Washington Post examines why heroin has made such a powerful comeback, how well-intentioned government policies have fueled demand for the drug and why enormous hurdles stand in the way of bringing the epidemic under control.

Read part one: David McCarthy briefly got clean on his own after detox programs and rehab failed. But the lure of inexpensive, plentiful heroin eventually proved too much.

And don’t eat anything, he was told, until reaching the final destination: Dayton, Ohio, one of the new frontiers of the American heroin epidemic.

A sophisticated farm-to-arm supply chain is fueling America’s surging heroin appetite, causing heroin to surpass cocaine and meth to become the nation’s No. 1 drug threat for the first time. As demand has grown, the flow of heroin — a once-taboo drug now easier to score in some cities than crack or pot —  has changed, too.

Mexican cartels have overtaken the U.S. heroin trade, imposing an almost corporate discipline. They grow and process the drug themselves, increasingly replacing their traditional black tar with an innovative high-quality powder with mass market appeal: It can be smoked or snorted by newcomers as well as shot up by hard-core addicts.

They have broadened distribution beyond the old big-city heroin centers like Chicago or New York to target unlikely places such as Dayton. The midsize Midwestern city today is considered to be an epicenter of the heroin problem, with addicts buying and overdosing in unsettling droves. Crack dealers on street corners have been supplanted by heroin dealers ranging across a far wider landscape, almost invisible to law enforcement. They arrange deals by cellphone and deliver heroin like pizza.

In August of last year, a window opened into this shadowy world: A tip led federal drug agents to Vargas, a low-level courier willing to tell them what he knew in exchange for leniency.

“Sometimes,” one agent later explained, “the dope gods smile.”

Vargas was the perfect drug mule. He was 22 but looked younger. He’d been born in California, moving to Mexico at age 12 after his father was deported, so he possessed a U.S. passport. He also had a spotless record, perfect English and a desperate need for cash: His father had already lost one eye to diabetes.

He’d been offered $6 a gram. This job would earn him nearly $6,000.

Things could go wrong. Another courier headed to Dayton had to use the bathroom unexpectedly during a layover at a U.S. airport and lost his pellets when the toilet flushed automatically, according to the drug agents who finally arrested him.

Pellets bursting was a courier’s worst fear. Once in Lorain, Ohio, a courier started foaming at the mouth, and his handler called down to Mexico to figure out what to do. As authorities listened via wiretap, the handler was told to cut the courier open and retrieve the remaining drugs.

Vargas had been carefully trained to avoid such accidents. According to court documents and multiple interviews with Drug Enforcement Administration investigators and Vargas’s attorneys, he began his journeys with visits to a gray stucco house in Uruapan, Mexico, a city of 315,000 people in the state of Michoacan, which sprawls west from Mexico City to the Pacific Ocean.

But Vargas knew almost nothing about Dayton, beyond what seemed to be an insatiable demand for the secret stash he carried.

A 37-hour trip with 71 pellets of heroin in your stomach

How one kilo (2.2 pounds) came to Ohio, among the estimated 102,000-plus kilos

of heroin smuggled into the U.S. last year, almost all of it across the United States- Mexico border.

Dayton

5

4

3

Las Vegas

U.S.

2

Tijuana

MEXICO

1

Uruapan

A courier takes the 2:05 p.m. flight from Uruapan to Tijuana.

He walks across the San Ysidro border pedestrian bridge and travels by vehicle to John Wayne Airport, in Santa Ana, Calif.

He takes the 3:39 p.m. flight to Las Vegas.

He takes the 6:05 p.m. flight to Indianapolis, which arrives at 1:19 a.m.

A taxi takes him to the Dayton Motor Motel. The 129-mile ride cost $250.

1

2

3

4

5

Source: DEA

TODD C. FRANKEL AND LARIS KARKLIS/

THE WASHINGTON POST

A 37-hour trip with 71 pellets of heroin in your stomach

How one kilo (2.2 pounds) came to Ohio, among the estimated 102,000-

plus kilos of heroin smuggled into the U.S. last year, almost all of it across the United States-Mexico border.

A courier takes the 2:05 p.m. flight from Uruapan to Tijuana.

He walks across the San Ysidro border pedestrian bridge and travels by vehicle to John Wayne Airport, in Santa Ana, Calif.

He takes the 3:39 p.m. flight to Las Vegas.

He takes the 6:05 p.m. flight to Indianapolis, which arrives at 1:19 a.m.

A taxi takes him to the Dayton Motor Motel. The 129-mile ride cost $250.

1

U.S.

4

5

2

Indianapolis

3

Dayton

Las Vegas

2

Tijuana

3

4

5

Uruapan

1

MEXICO

Source: DEA

TODD C. FRANKEL AND LARIS KARKLIS/THE WASHINGTON POST

A 37-hour trip to Dayton with 71 pellets of heroin in your stomach

How one kilo (2.2 pounds) came to Ohio, among the estimated 102,000-plus kilos of heroin smuggled into the United States last year, almost all of it across the U.S.-Mexico border.

A courier takes the 2:05 p.m. flight from Uruapan to Tijuana.

He walks across the San Ysidro border pedestrian bridge and travels by vehicle to John Wayne Airport, in Santa Ana, Calif.

He takes the 3:39 p.m. flight to Las Vegas.

He takes the 6:05 p.m. flight to Indianapolis, which arrives at 1:19 a.m.

A taxi takes him to the Dayton Motor Motel. The 129-mile ride cost $250.

1

Dayton

Indianapolis

5

4

Las Vegas

2

3

U.S.

2

Tijuana

3

4

MEXICO

5

Source: DEA

1

Uruapan

TODD C. FRANKEL AND LARIS KARKLIS/THE WASHINGTON POST

Crack cocaine used to be Dayton’s drug of choice. That’s how La Familia Michoacana got its start here. According to the DEA, the drug cartel employed a man named Daniel Garcia-Guia, who moved thousands of kilos of drugs into Dayton, almost entirely cocaine, until his arrest in 2007.

“We didn’t seize any heroin in those days,” DEA special agent Steve Lucas said.

But a year later, Lucas was at a drug stash house with La Familia ties doing a trash pull — going through garbage looking for evidence — when he stumbled on pellet wrappings with heroin residue.

“I was shocked,” Lucas recalled. “One day it was kilos of coke, and suddenly it was heroin.”

It was a like a switch had been flipped. And it was happening across the country.

This wasn’t supposed to happen with heroin. The drug has a reputation as a rough ride. That’s why many experts believe heroin fell out of favor after the last heroin epidemic in the early 1970s.

For years, treatment centers saw few heroin addicts. But that started changing in the mid-2000s and took off a few years later after a government crackdown on opioid painkiller abuse. Unable to get pills, many addicts turned to heroin, the painkillers’ chemical cousin.

Today, authorities estimate there are between 435,000 and 1.5 million heroin users in the United States. Treatment centers are once again flooded with young users, many of whom got their start on prescription drugs.

Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine (R), whose office has focused on the heroin epidemic, said he was astonished at how easily pill addicts made the switch.

“There used to be some psychological barrier to heroin,” DeWine said. “That barrier is gone today.”

In Montgomery County, home to Dayton, heroin-related deaths have skyrocketed 225 percent since 2011. Last year, this county of 540,000 residents reported 127 fatal heroin overdoses — among the highest rates in the nation, according to statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“The coroner can’t keep up,” said Robert Carlson, a Wright State University ethnographer who helps track overdoses. “There’s not enough room to keep all the bodies.”

Just as U.S. authorities were cracking down on painkillers, Mexican cartels were figuring out how to make high-quality powder heroin.

For decades, Mexicans dealt primarily in home-grown black tar heroin, a crude concoction that looks like its name. It is sticky like tree sap and odorous like vinegar. Its appeal is limited. And it was sold almost exclusively west of the Mississippi River. East of the Mississippi, the Colombians pushed powder heroin.

But moving beyond black tar made sense for the Mexicans. Powder was a better product. Stronger. It was easier to smuggle, too: Kilo for kilo, powder took up less room.

It was also extremely profitable. A kilo of heroin might cost $5,000 to produce in Mexico. But it could sell for $80,000 to suppliers in the United States, twice what cocaine fetches. And a street dealer could make $300,000 by diluting the kilo and doling it out to addicts a tenth of a gram at a time.

The first signs that the map’s stark divisions were blurring soon popped up at the DEA’s Heroin Signature Program lab in Sterling, Va.

The DEA chemists there trace the origins of heroin shipments by detecting differences in how the drug is made and matching that with known recipes from Mexico, Colombia or Asia. But, in 2005, they saw something odd. Normally, they failed to identify the country of origin for about 5 percent of heroin samples. Now, nearly a quarter of samples were coming up “unclassified.”

Drug researchers had a theory: Mexican cartels were hiring Colombian chemists to teach them the secrets to better heroin. Then, the chemists found the proof they needed. Earlier this year, the DEA quietly unveiled a new category: heroin of Mexican origin, South American processing.

And that powder is what seems to be driving the epidemic into cities like Dayton.

For La Familia, shipping powder straight to smaller markets such as Dayton meant no more sharing with suppliers in Chicago or New York.

“I’d never thought it, but we turned into a source city,” Montgomery County Sheriff Phil Plummer said.

To spur demand, dealers started throwing in free “tester” hits of powder heroin when customers bought pot or crack. Many dealers soon moved to heroin full time, police and former addicts said.

In Dayton, heroin is sold in “caps” —  generic gel caps bought in bulk at health-food stores. And when a dealer has good heroin, he will brag that it’s fire. These caps are fire.

A cap, containing what looks like a dusting of heroin, sells for $10.

Capsules of powder heroin sell for $10 apiece. They have supplanted black tar and other forms of heroin, shown here in a crime lab. (Photos by Ty Wright for The Washington Post)

With a bellyful of heroin, Vargas followed the same worn path followed by hundreds of other drug mules. He began by hopping a 2:05 p.m. Volaris flight from Uruapan to Tijuana, putting him 20 minutes from the U.S.-Mexico border.

No one knows how many tons of drugs slip across that border. Authorities only know what they manage to stop. Researchers believe the border detection rate hovers around 1.5 percent — favorable odds for a smuggler.

The next morning, Vargas and his kilo walked into the San Ysidro border station, the nation’s busiest entry point. Waved on, he caught a hired van outside the border station and headed 100 miles north to John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana, Calif., bypassing the much closer airport in San Diego, which he’d been warned to avoid. Other drug couriers had been arrested there.

He caught AirTran Flight 436 to Las Vegas, then jumped on Southwest Flight 2419. But he wasn’t flying to Dayton. He’d been warned to avoid that airport, too. He landed in Indianapolis at 1:19 a.m.

In the pre-dawn hours, Vargas hailed a cab for the two-hour ride to Dayton.

After 3,900 miles and 37 hours, Vargas checked into a $45-a-night room at the Dayton Motor Motel. He was in Room 8.

After three flights and nearly 4,000 miles, a drug courier from Mexico ended up at the Dayton Motor Inn on North Keowee Street. (Photo by Ty Wright for The Washington Post)

On the streets, heroin is called girl. Crack is boy. And the switch from boy to girl has complicated the job for drug cops like Sgt. John Sullivan, who heads Dayton’s undercover drug unit.

“In the transition from crack to heroin,” said Sullivan, “the business model has totally changed.”

The crack trade at least had a physical location. There were crack houses. Drug corners. Runners. Police knew which neighborhoods to focus on.

With heroin, it’s mobile phones and car-to-car transactions. The deals can take place in mall parking lots. At gas stations. In suburbs. Dealers will come to you, what’s known as the pizza-delivery model.

In Albuquerque, addicts calling their dealer were patched through to a dispatcher living in Washington state.

“There’s no geography to it anymore,” said Lee Hoffer, an ethnographer at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland who is studying heroin users.

And the dealers have gotten smarter.

Tired of losing personal vehicles to drug forfeiture laws, they use rentals, which can’t be seized, Sullivan said. The end of drug houses means there is nothing for police to raid — or rival dealers to rob. Turf wars have disappeared along with the turf. Drug dealers realized they could live anywhere. Some moved out to the suburbs. One moved into the same upscale apartment building as Sullivan.

The business now is all about the phone. A drug dealer’s phone, filled with customers’ numbers, is so valuable that it’s known as a money phone. The information is often backed up onto other phones or stored on computers in Mexico. When police seize a money phone, they have to seal it in a special bag to block cell signals or dealers can erase its memory remotely.

“Logistically,” said Capt. Mike Brem of the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office, heroin “is a nightmare.”

Officers walk away from a house searched for heroin last week on Walton Avenue in Dayton, a new epicenter of the heroin epidemic. (Photo by Ty Wright for The Washington Post)

That was evident one day this summer as Sullivan and a Dayton police team tried to buy 10 caps of heroin. An undercover detective called a dealer on his cellphone and was told to drive to a street corner and wait. The dealer called with a new set of turn-by-turn directions.

Sullivan steered a surveillance van along the twists and turns as he struggled to keep up with his detective. The dealer lured the buyer closer and closer, until Sullivan’s van was sitting atop an alley, waiting. The dealer called back. The deal was off. He was suspicious.

'And then he decided not to be'

Read part one: David McCarthy briefly got clean on his own after detox programs and rehab failed. But the lure of inexpensive, plentiful heroin eventually proved too much.

Sullivan and his team headed back to the office, where they watched surveillance video of another heroin buy: Two cars pulling alongside each other on a quiet street, driver to driver, and hands flashing through open windows.

“Right there, that was it,” said one drug cop. “And then they’re gone.”

The afternoon after he arrived, Vargas emerged from his motel room. He walked across the parking lot, never seeming to notice the undercover drug cops parked around the perimeter.

Jason Via, a DEA special agent, sized Vargas up, watching him walk to a McDonald’s.

On previous trips, Vargas had stayed at a Ramada in a nearby suburb. He usually shared the room with another courier. The pellets were collected by a blond woman. Vargas overheard her talking on the phone with someone he assumed was her contact in Mexico. She called him “Chilango.”

Vargas never met Chilango. But the DEA suspects they know who he is — a Michoacan resident who once lived in Dayton and now coordinates heroin distribution from Uruapan. The entire operation was being orchestrated from thousands of miles away.

In recent years, the La Familia cartel has been hobbled by violence and arrests south of the border. Splinter groups emerged. Now, it wasn’t clear to the DEA how much control any trafficking group exerted.

Yet the flow of heroin never stopped.

The streets never know a shortage. Addicts, in fear of being dope sick, always keep backup dealers. Dealers keep backup suppliers.

Heroin doesn’t move in a straight line, but like a computer network, with nodes and redundancies, said Hoffer, the ethnographer. “You can take out a large portion of the vertical chain and it’ll have no effect on the final market — the consumer.”

The next afternoon, Via and another agent knocked on Vargas’s door. Vargas did not seem surprised. He let them in.

Via noticed a trash can that had been used as a toilet — a sign of a body courier. Vargas permitted the agents to search the room. They found a plastic bag filled with heroin pellets hidden in the toilet tank.

Vargas began to talk. He told his life story. How he was a married father of two. How his father was sick with diabetes.

A tip led federal agents last year to Gerardo A. Vargas in a Dayton motel room, where they found heroin capsules hidden in a toilet tank. (Photo by Drug Enforcement Administration)

And then Vargas mentioned that he had one last pellet inside him.

Via rushed Vargas to the hospital. He didn’t want the pellet to burst.

Vargas faced serious prison time: 10 years to life. His best shot at helping himself was to talk. So he spilled the details of his trips. He even sat down with the DEA in a fruitless attempt to use satellite maps of Uruapan to find that gray stucco house where it all began.

It was clear how little Vargas knew.

“He was a babe in the woods,” his attorney, Patrick Mulligan, said.

At his sentencing hearing in January, Vargas was remorseful. The judge sentenced him to two years. Vargas did not respond to attempts to talk with him in prison.

Recently, county detectives were closing in on another courier holed up in another local motel. This time, the courier was a woman, as many are these days, a fresh sign of the ever-changing tactics.

But the dope gods were not smiling this time. They just missed her.

The heroin has kept flowing, uninterrupted. Same with the overdoses. The treatments and relapses. Caps still go for $10. Girl is still fire.

About this story: From the countryside of New England to the cities of the Midwest, the most deadly epidemic of heroin use in half a century is tearing at the fabric of American life. In this series of articles, The Washington Post examines why heroin has made such a powerful comeback, how well-intentioned government policies have fueled demand for the drug and why enormous hurdles stand in the way of bringing the epidemic under control.

Read part one: David McCarthy briefly got clean on his own after detox programs and rehab failed. But the lure of inexpensive, plentiful heroin eventually proved too much.

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