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Mexican Heroin on Rise in U.S.

Opium paste is harvested from poppy bulbs. (Reuters)
By Molly Moore and
Douglas Farah

Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, June 2, 1998; Page A01

Mexican drug cartels, long regarded as peddlers of cheap, low-grade heroin that accounted for only a tiny portion of the U.S. market, are now producing some of the world's most potent heroin and are seizing control of a rapidly growing share of the U.S. heroin business, according to Mexican and U.S. law enforcement officials.

Mexico has become the second-largest source of heroin used in the United States, and the purity of the Mexican-produced drug has increased sixfold in the past two years in what U.S. law enforcement and health authorities describe as alarming trends.

Colombian and U.S. officials said the changes are tied to an emerging alliance between a Colombian heroin trafficking organization led by Ivan Urdinola and Mexican drug smuggling groups that are learning how to produce more potent heroin. In a dramatic shift in global heroin trafficking patterns, Colombian and Mexican drug cartels largely have taken over distribution in the United States from Asian organizations, whose share of the American market -- based on seizures by law enforcement authorities -- has plunged from 90 percent to 28 percent since 1992.

U.S. officials say the shift in the heroin supply coincides with a disturbing trend in drug consumption in the United States. While the number of cocaine users has dropped significantly in recent years, the number of heroin users has risen from 500,000 to 600,000 over the past two years.

Part of the surge in heroin use, experts say, is driven by the purity of the new supply. Instead of having to be injected directly into the bloodstream, as the low-purity heroin traditionally produced in Mexico required, today's more potent drug can be smoked or inhaled like cocaine. The ability to use heroin without injection and the corresponding fear of HIV infection from dirty needles has made heroin more popular, narcotics experts say.

The Colombians, who began trafficking in heroin six years ago, learned how to refine opium latex into heroin from Thai and Cambodian experts. Through the years, Colombians have refined the process to make their heroin up to 90 percent pure, and some are passing on their skills to Mexican traffickers.

Until two years ago, U.S. authorities say, Mexican cartels produced only a low grade of heroin called "black tar," which was about 7 to 20 percent pure. But the purity of Mexican heroin has since climbed to an average of 50 to 60 percent, with some seizures recorded at 76 percent purity, according to U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration figures.

Mexican drug syndicates, which already have taken over many U.S. cocaine distribution routes once dominated by Colombian cartels, have substantially expanded their reach and now control virtually all heroin sales west of the Mississippi River, according to the U.S. anti-drug officials. DEA officials estimate that 42 percent of all the heroin smuggled into the United States is produced in Mexico -- 4.5 tons a year, compared to the six tons of Colombian heroin that reach the United States annually.

Seizures of Mexican heroin by U.S. authorities in 1995 and 1996 quadrupled to 20 percent of all the heroin confiscated in the country -- one of the first signs of the Mexican cartels' increasing role, according to anti-drug agencies. Mexican heroin seizures have continued to rise, authorities said.

"International organized crime groups from Mexico are directly supplying American communities with high-purity heroin," DEA Administrator Thomas A. Constantine told a congressional hearing in March. "With the drug's low cost and deadly levels of purity, this is clearly cause for concern."

Arrested Men/Reuters
Alleged drug producers – one from Mexico, the rest from Colombia – were arrested last year near Durango, Mexico. (Reuters)
U.S. authorities discovered the dramatic rise in purity levels of Mexican heroin when 14 teenagers and young adults in one Dallas suburb died in 1996 after using "uncut" Mexican heroin so pure that it exploded in their systems like a bomb.

Colombian officials said it is not clear why the Colombians are sharing their expertise with the Mexicans, who in some cases have become rivals in the cocaine trade. "What we know is that the heroin trade is proliferating as a business and that groups in Colombia, based in Pereira, are making the contacts with the Mexicans," a senior Colombian intelligence official said. "It is a growing alliance, but we don't yet know what is driving it."

The hardest evidence of the new alliance emerged in October, when Mexican officials arrested two Colombians and a Mexican near the north Mexican town of Durango. Authorities discovered a heroin lab and confiscated 352 pounds of opium gum, used to make heroin, and just over two pounds of morphine.

Durango is in the heart of an area controlled by one of Mexico's oldest drug trafficking organizations, the Herrera family. The Colombians told law enforcement officials they worked for the Urdinola organization, which controls heroin distribution in the New York City area.

The increase in Mexican heroin sales in the United States comes as Mexican authorities have made slight increases in the amount of opium fields destroyed there. U.S. authorities also estimate that the total area under opium poppy cultivation in Mexico has decreased from 32,000 acres in 1996 to 29,600 acres last year.

The amount of heroin seized in the United States has increased steadily in recent years, according to DEA officials. Seizures by all federal U.S. law enforcement agents grew from 2,569 pounds in 1995 to 3,381 pounds in 1996. Incomplete figures from 1997 record seizures totaling 3,003 pounds.

Moore reported from Mexico City, Farah from Bogota, Colombia, and Washington.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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