DEA Lays Out New Dynamic for Regional Heroin Trafficking

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A top DEA official has sounded the alarm over how heroin traffickers in Mexico have massively increased poppy cultivation and expanded their distribution networks into the east coast of the United States as they look to cash in on the growing number of US heroin users.

In Congressional testimony (pdf) on October 8 regarding drug abuse, Acting Deputy Administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Jack Riley said the DEA had documented a 50 percent increase in the cultivation of poppy (the plant used to make heroin) in Mexico, primarily in the state of Guerrero and the Mexican “Golden Triangle” of Durango, Sinaloa, and Chihuahua.

Mexican criminal organizations such as the Sinaloa Cartel have also been expanding territorially in US markets and developing more sophisticated production techniques, Riley asserted. 

Traditionally, Riley said, the US heroin market has been divided by the Mississippi River: markets west of the river used Mexican black tar and brown powder heroin, while the most lucrative markets, the large east coast urban centers, were dominated by higher quality Colombian-produced white powder heroin. However, Mexican drug traffickers are now also competing for the lucrative East Coast market, introducing Mexican brown/black tar heroin but also seeking to produce their own version of the more refined white powder variety.

The preferred trafficking routes for these networks is the Southwest US-Mexico border, where heroin seizures doubled between 2009 and 2013 from 846 to 2,196 kilograms, according to Riley

The Mexican traffickers are supplying a rapidly increasing number of US heroin users, which more than doubled between 2007 and 2014, from 373,000 to 914,000, according to Riley. Today, he said, heroin is higher in purity, less expensive, and often easier to obtain than prescription opioids — such as the painkillers oxycodone and hydrocodone. .

InSight Crime Analysis

There are numerous market forces that explain the changing dynamic in regional heroin production, trafficking and distribution.

One of most important is the rapidly rising demand as a result of the growing number of US users. As Riley elaborates on in his testimony, rising US heroin use is closely linked to abuse of prescription painkillers, the most commonly used illegal drug in the United States after marijuana. Many users start off on pills but turn to heroin because it is cheaper, more easily available or because it has a stronger effect.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Heroin

Exploiting this growing market may also be making up for shortfalls in revenues elsewhere for Mexican traffickers. In recent years, US cocaine consumption has decreased and the legalization of marijuana in several US states has opened that market to increased competition, and the cartels may see heroin as a profitable replacement for these shrinking markets.

These new conditions appear to have led to Mexican traffickers developing a strategy based on three pillars; ramping up production, expanding into new markets, and innovating production techniques to better compete with the superior product of their Colombian rivals.  

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