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Mexico's cartels have transitioned from brown "tar" heroin to "china white"

Over the last ten years, US anti-narcotics agencies have witnessed a heroin epidemic that tripled the number of heroin addicts and caused more than 40,000 overdose deaths. The epidemic is the result of many factors, but there is one simple yet determining reason: the change in color of the heroin.

Traditionally, the heroin produced in Mexico has been of a dark brown color, which is how it got the nickname "Mexican tar." It was consumed primarily in cities on the US West Coast. Users on the East Coast preferred "china white," a white powder variety of heroin made popular by Chinese traffickers at the beginning of the 20th century. 

This article was translated, edited for length and clarity and published with the permission of Animal Político. It does not necessarily represent the views of InSight Crime. See the Spanish original here.

Obeying the basics rules of supply and demand, Mexico's cartels have changed their opium processing methods, inserting themselves into a growing market, "which has allowed the heroin threat to expand to unprecedented levels," according to the 2016 National Drug Threat Assessment Summary (pdf) from the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

Criminal Alliances

It was August 26, 2014 when Gary Pentis, assistant to the Ventura County Sheriff in California, announced the results of an investigation into a drug trafficking network that operated within state penitentiaries in alliance with Mexico's Sinaloa Cartel.

For one year, police officials investigated extortion and drug trafficking carried out by members of the Mexican Mafia, one of the largest and oldest prison gangs in the United States, and members of the Central American-based MS13 gang.

Their investigation resulted in the arrest of seven gang members and the seizure of $3.37 million, 35 firearms, 31 kilograms of methamphetamine, 23 kilograms of cocaine and 1.3 kilograms of black heroin. But the Ventura County Sheriff Department's most significant achievement was the confiscation of 12.7 kilograms of white heroin. 

"They call it china white, but it doesn't come from China," Pentis explained. The drug came from Mexico and was supplied by the Sinaloa Cartel, one of the principal providers of narcotics to both the Mexican Mafia and MS13.

SEE ALSO: Sinaloa Cartel News and Profiles

Pentis explained that the quality of the drug reached 98 percent purity, and the overall value was calculated to be in excess of $5 million. The white heroin was packed into 28 foil-wrapped bricks approximately 20 centimeters long and 10 centimeters high that had been discovered inside the trunk of a vehicle.

According to Pentis, Ventura County has been the center of operations for the criminal network responsible for the white heroin. It receives the drug shipments coming from Mexico, which are later shipped to other US states such as Texas, Mississippi or New York.

The network was comprised of imprisoned gang members from different California prisons. However, the final decisions were made by the leaders of the Mexican Mafia and MS13 incarcerated in Pelican Bay, a maximum-security facility in California.

Mexican Cartels: The Most Prominent Sellers

The Ventura County Sheriff Department's investigation uncovered a growing trend in drug trafficking in the United States: Mexico's cartels are expanding their operations and gaining territory in the eastern part of the country.

"Mexican organizations are now the most prominent wholesale-level heroin traffickers in the DEA Chicago, New Jersey, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC [field division areas of responsibility], and have greatly expanded their presence in the New York City area," according to the DEA's Threat Assessment report.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of US/Mexico Border

During the first half of the 1990s, Colombian cartels dominated heroin trafficking to the United States. They have since been replaced by the Mexican traffickers that now operate with a stronger transportation and distribution infrastructure, which allows them to reliably supply the different markets within the United States, according to the DEA. 

According to official US data, the majority of the heroin in the 1990s and in the early 2000s was transported along commercial routes from South America. Starting in 2008, shipments began to arrive at the southwest border of the United States and were smugggled on the ground by Mexican traffickers.

In 2015, close to half of the seizures carried out by US Customs and Border Protection at the national level (totaling 2.12 tons) occurred along the US-Mexican border near San Diego, California (1.04 tons).

Seizures in this area have quadrupled since 2010, while the border regions of Tucson, Arizona and Rio Grande, Texas have also registered significant increases.

The DEA's intelligence report on the consumption of heroin also signals that Mexican organizations are shifting their operation centers from large urban centers to suburban or rural areas, where it is easier for them to hide their activities. This explains why the Sinaloa Cartel established their base in Ventura County and not in Los Angeles itself.

The Change in Color

Historically, cities along the East Coast of the United States have been the largest and most lucrative markets for heroin. The preferred variety has been, and continues to be, china white.

Chinese traffickers popularized this narcotic at the beginning of the last century. The drug was produced in Southeast Asian countries such as Myanmar, Thailand and Laos, a region known as the Golden Triangle.

However, users from the Southwest United States grew accustomed to using the dark brown heroin, known as "Mexican tar" for its color and country of origin. Heroin users generally prefer a specific variety and are reluctant to change.

These tendencies of drug use have been studied over the past three decades by the Heroin Domestic Monitor Program of the DEA. The administration also tracks the origin of the drug, and according to their records, the countries of Southeast Asia produced the majority of the heroin introduced to the United States from 1990 to 1995.

In 1995, South American countries, in particular Colombia, became the principal producer of the heroin consumed in the United States, and maintained their hegemony for almost two decades. The Colombians copied traditional processing methods from the Asians, producing the white powder variety that was in such high demand in the United States.

Beginning in 2013, Mexico's cartels overtook the Colombians as the most important producers and providers of white heroin in the United States.

This heroin contains a mix of Mexican and Colombian poppies, and is processed using preparation methods traditionally used in countries in Southeast Asia. The new categorization the DEA gives this narcotic is "MEX-SA" (Mexico-South America).

In reality, neither Colombian heroin nor Asian heroin can compete with Mexican heroin in terms of cost and purity. One kilogram of Asian heroin can cost anywhere between $5,000 and $10,000 more than a kilo of Mexican heroin. The Mexican product can reach a purity grade of up to 74 percent, more than double that of the Asian product.

The DEA's San Diego office typically seizes black and brown heroin of Mexican origin, but investigations into white heroin trafficking are on the rise. Recent seizures indicate that the presence of black heroin in the eastern United States has increased, and that since the last decade its market has extended further east to larger cities and is expanding into suburban and rural areas.

The sum of all these factors has raised red flags for the health and public security agencies of the United States, such as the DEA. Their warning is strong and clear: "the heroin threat" is expanding "to unprecedented levels."

*This article was translated, edited for length and clarity and published with the permission of Animal Político. It does not necessarily represent the views of InSight Crime. See the Spanish original here.


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