Following the apparent heroin overdose of a famous actor, US officials say decreased cooperation from authorities in Mexico has allowed the heroin market to expand, a dubious claim related to increased tensions between the countries’ drug enforcement institutions.
An anonymous official from the US Department of Justice (DOJ) told Proceso that increasing amounts of Mexican heroin circulating in major US cities including New York City, Chicago, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Detroit and Miami was indicative of “a failure in bilateral cooperation.”
The comment came just days after the death of US actor Philip Seymour Hoffman from an apparent heroin overdose drew attention to the issue of rising and spreading heroin consumption in the US.
The DOJ official said limits placed on the Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA) access to information during the first year of Peña Nieto’s presidency had also reduced the Mexican administration’s effectiveness in capturing cartel leaders.
The latest DEA National Drug Threat Assessment found evidence that cocaine trafficking into the US had dropped significantly in 2012, but methamphetamine and heroin availability was rising. The DEA attributed this to rising production in Mexico and the expansion of Mexican traffickers.
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The comment is related to rising tensions between US drug agents and the administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto, which took office in December 2012. The US provided key intelligence to the previous administration and had significant operational autonomy. A recent investigation, for instance, found DEA and US Department of Justice officials met secretly with leaders of Mexican cartels to gather intelligence.
But that unfettered access is gone. Now, by law, the US is required to go through the Interior Ministry to contact Mexican intelligence officials.
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The US is also angry that a convicted drug trafficker, Rafael Caro Quintero, who was also the mastermind behind the kidnapping and killing of a DEA agent in 1985, was released in August 2013 from prison on a technicality 12 years before the end of his sentence. Caro Quintero remains at large.
However, attributing rising heroin availability in the United States to a deteriorating security relationship seems simplistic at best and a political ploy at worst. It fails to take other factors into account, such as rising purity, shifting consumption patterns — especially with regards to “gateway opiates” such as oxycontin — and the diversification of criminal revenue sources.
Questions also remain over the dire qualification of heroin use in the United States. One DEA official called Hoffman a victim of a “growing epidemic,” but despite a clear pattern of rising consumption, heroin use continues to represent a miniscule percentage of overall drug use in the US and, according to the Centers for Disease Control, deaths due to overdose “were relatively stable” between 1999 and 2010.