Seizures of Mexican heroin in the United States have been on the rise

Two of Mexico's most powerful drug cartels are battling for control of the US heroin market, the DEA says, raising the possibility that heroin trafficking patterns may be evolving along similar lines as the cocaine trade.

In comments reported by EFE on September 25, Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) spokesperson Russell K. Baer told the news service that the Jalisco Cartel and the Sinaloa Cartel have recently come into conflict over the heroin trade.

Specifically, Baer said that the Jalisco Cartel "is pushing and has at times come into confrontation with the Sinaloa Cartel" over heroin trafficking routes.

In mid-2015 a Mexican security official described the Jalisco and Sinaloa organizations as the only "operating and functioning" cartels in that country, although authorities there have since acknowledged that other groups are still active. In its 2015 National Drug Threat Assessment, the DEA identified seven other organizations that the agency named among "the principal suppliers" of illegal drugs to the United States.

At the same time, the DEA report described the Sinaloa Cartel as "the most active supplier" of wholesale quantities of drugs in the United States, and said that the Jalisco Cartel "is quickly becoming one of the most powerful" criminal organizations in Mexico.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Heroin

A number of recent reports appear to indicate the existence of an escalating conflict over drug trafficking routes between the Sinaloa and Jalisco organizations. The most prominent of these is the recent incident in which Jalisco operatives kidnapped the son of jailed Sinaloa Cartel leader Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán from a restaurant in Jalisco state.

Although El Chapo was captured earlier this year and is currently fighting extradition to the United States, the DEA maintains that the Sinaloa organization has continued to function under the direction of his longtime associates and of his sons.

"'El Chapo' may be in custody and he may have been taken out of his leadership, but his sons are very involved in the criminal activity of the cartel," Baer told EFE.

US authorities evidently remain concerned about heroin trafficking from Mexico as well as the Sinaloa Cartel's involvement in the drug trade.

On September 23, law enforcement agencies in New York and Massachusetts announced a major bust of a nationwide heroin trafficking ring that allegedly moved drugs from Mexico to Arizona and on to East Coast markets. The same day, the Treasury Department blacklisted several individuals linked to the Sinaloa Cartel, including Eliseo Imperial Castro, the nephew of Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada Garcia.

InSight Crime Analysis

The DEA has previously warned about the increasing involvement of Mexican crime groups in the lucrative US heroin trade. In a June 2016 threat assessment (pdf), the agency noted that total heroin seizures in the United States have been steadily increasing for the past five years, and that Mexican heroin has accounted for a growing share of those seizures. According to the document, the agency found that 79 percent of the total weight of heroin that it analyzed in 2014 came from Mexico.

This appears to represents a shift in dynamics observed in previous years, when Colombian trafficking groups controlled the supply of heroin to markets on the East Coast. In March, DEA spokesperson Rusty Payne told InSight Crime that "Colombians are getting further and further from street level sales" of heroin, adding that "they've really stuck with the wholesale game."

SEE ALSO: Coverage of the US-Mexico Border

If this is the case, it would mirror a pattern observed in the development of the cocaine trade. Colombian groups used to control not only the production of cocaine, but also its distribution in US markets. In recent years, however, Mexican trafficking organizations have developed extensive ties to Colombian wholesale cocaine suppliers and have largely replaced Colombian groups as the primary distributors of cocaine in the US marketplace.

This type of relationship offers advantages from the perspective of Colombian crime groups: By using Mexican groups as intermediaries to get drugs from producers in Colombia to consumers in the United States, Colombian organizations can better avoid the scrutiny of US anti-drugs officials.

Nevertheless, a new US law passed in May makes it a crime to traffic drugs anywhere in the world if the trafficker has "reasonable cause to believe" that the buyer intends to bring drugs into the United States or US territorial waters. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who sponsored the bill, told InSight Crime in November 2015 that the law was specifically targeted at South American drug suppliers using Mexican groups as intermediaries to introduce drugs to the United States.

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