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Today’s Heroin Cheap, Attractive and Lethal

Part 2 of a four-part series. Read Part 1 here.

Other related stories:

Copyright © 2012 Albuquerque Journal

Dear Readers,

The demise of the Mexican heroin trade has been announced at least three times during my career — in the early 1980s when cocaine grabbed the headlines, again during the crack cocaine epidemic and finally around 2000.

But heroin never went away.

True, there is a difference now. Black tar has been replaced by brown powder. It’s cheap, and the higher purity level means it can be smoked or snorted. That makes it a drug of choice for teens, in particular, who think it’s safe because they don’t need a needle. The higher potency makes it more addictive and easier to overdose.

But while law enforcement priorities changed like the wind, in New Mexico, heroin was always there.

Over the years, the official assessment of the problem seemed to ebb and flow with little connection to reality. At some point, I concluded that any announcement of the demise of the Mexican heroin trade was the same as using the phrase “war on drugs.” It was political rhetoric for political agendas.

As long as heroin kept its place in poor neighborhoods, killing people of color or homeless men who smell of urine, many bought into the myth that heroin was no longer a problem.

But let heroin do its deadly work in the vaulted ceilings of Albuquerque’s Northeast Heights — where the Nayarit Cartel targets affluent teenagers — and the myth is destroyed. Suddenly, heroin is real and it kills.

In the world I’ve covered, that’s always been the reality.

— Mike Gallagher

During 2005, in the middle of  wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the warnings from Drug Enforcement Administration analysts got lost.

Mexican heroin was becoming more abundant. Purity levels were rising.

The warnings in those internal documents reviewed by the Journal were in stark contrast to what the U.S. State Department had told Congress five years earlier — that Mexican poppy cultivation was at an all-time low and Mexico was no longer a major problem as far as heroin was concerned.

Some of  the DEA warnings made it into the public arena in 2006, and they became louder in 2008. Other agencies, such as Homeland Security, took note that the purity of heroin seized at the border was increasing. The DEA found more and more Mexican heroin on the East Coast.

But that story was pushed to the background by the increasing violence between the Mexican drug cartels and the involvement of the Mexican army. Those stories dominated front pages, the Internet and the nightly news. The annual reports on Mexican heroin poppy cultivation in Mexico hardly caused a ripple.

But as cartel violence claimed the lives of more than 50,000 people, Mexican heroin production more than doubled between 2005 and 2007 from 9.6 tons to 21.6 tons as the total acreage under cultivation for poppies boomed.

From 2007 to 2008, heroin production estimates doubled again to 45.6 tons, according to the National Drug Intelligence Center 2010 report.

Instead of producing black tar heroin  —  a process that uses less opium base — the cartels began refining the opium base into brown powder heroin of much higher purity.

What happened?

The theory put forward by several former DEA analysts is pretty simple.

The Mexican army was redirected from poppy eradication, which involved pulling the plants out by hand and generally making life difficult for the peasant “Gomeros” who grow the poppy and collect the dried poppy gum.

Instead, they were taking the fight to the drug cartels, attempting to keep the peace or making the violence worse, depending on your point of view.

That allowed the heroin poppy crop to sprout throughout the Sierra Madre from Durango and Sinaloa to Mexico’s southern border. Cartel chemists trained in the more sophisticated manufacturing of methamphetamine were enlisted to make better quality heroin.

They made a lot of it.

And all that product had to go somewhere.

It came to the United States.

Increased purity

Keith Brown, assistant special agent in charge of the Albuquerque DEA office, said his agents don’t see much black tar heroin these days.

“Just about everything we seize these days is brown powder,” he said. “The purity is much higher.”

Instead of 900,000 heroin addicts in the United States, a figure that had remained fairly steady for decades, federal drug agency estimates jumped to 1.5 million addicts by 2010.

The New Mexico Department of Health estimates there are 25,000 addicts using needles in the state, and heroin is the most commonly injected drug.

But you don’t need a needle to get high on heroin anymore.

“At the current level of purity, heroin can be smoked or snorted,” Brown said. “That wasn’t the case 10 years ago.”

That makes it more attractive to young people who shy away from needles.

Wholesale prices of an ounce of heroin have dropped from between $1,200 and $1,500 to a low of $500 an ounce, with an average price of $700.

Heroin at the street level is sold in “units” that go for $20. Roughly five units equal a gram.

Female inmates detox from heroin at a cell pod at the Metropolitan Detention Center, where inmates are under watch 24/7 in case of seizures or other health problems while “kicking” their habit. (Pat Vasquez-Cunningham/Journal)

“We have low prices and high demand,” Brown said. “Capitalism at its purest form.”

How many units an addict needs depends on how long he or she has been using heroin.

The body builds up a tolerance for opioid-based drugs so it takes more to get the “rush.” The more often a person takes the drug, the faster the tolerance builds up.

A gram-a-day habit isn’t unusual. Some addicts develop habits that can reach 3 grams a day. To support that habit, they normally start selling drugs and creating more heroin addicts.

The exact weight of heroin in a unit or a gram is guesswork, as is the purity. Street-level dealers are pretty unreliable when it comes to weights or cutting the heroin. There is no quality control.

That makes things risky for addicts. The difference between a “recreational” dose and a fatal dose is small.

Addicts can tell when heroin has been cut too much because they can smell the cutting agent when they “cook it” prior to injection.

“If it smells like coffee, you know they’ve cut the hell out of it with instant coffee,” Tim, a 32-year-old recovering addict, said in a recent interview. “Think about putting that in your veins. When you don’t give it a second thought, you know you’re a stone addict.”

Business models

There are generally three business models for distribution of heroin in New Mexico, keeping in mind there are no absolutes in the heroin economy:

  • Mexican nationals who set up regional poly-drug distribution networks with direct ties to either the Sinaloa or Juárez cartels. They sell to local connections, often relatives who have some legal status in the United States, who then sell to lower-level American distributors. The heroin flow into Rio Arriba County comes from these networks.
  • American trafficking organizations, like the Los Padillas gang, that have direct ties to Mexican wholesalers and operate in a specific geographic area. This type of operation has become rare because of increased competition and relentless law enforcement pressure.
  • The Nayarit Cartel, which specializes in heroin and operates self-contained distribution networks in midsize American cities from Phoenix to the East Coast. The Northeast Heights is a market targeted by these distributors.

Federal narcotics agents believe the Nayarit Cartel intentionally seeks to expand heroin distribution into more affluent suburban areas in mid-American cities.

The Nayarit Cartel created a system of independent cells made up of young illegal Mexican immigrants who live together and do nothing but deliver daily heroin supplies to American user/dealers.

They are deliberately nonthreatening and nondescript. They don’t carry guns. They don’t dress like gang-bangers.  They tend to drive cars like 5-year-old Mazdas.

They make deliveries to busy shopping center parking lots along major thoroughfares during the day and stay in their rented apartments or houses during the night.

Over the years, their delivery routes in Albuquerque moved north from the rougher trade near East Central to strip malls on Lomas Boulevard to shopping centers along Montgomery NE and now as far north as Paseo del Norte.

The delivery boys get paid $400 to $500 a month and a bonus of several thousand dollars when they return to Mexico after working six months to a year. Half of them seem to be nicknamed “Junior.”

They don’t know the real names of the people they work for and seldom see them.

“We’ve seen the same pattern all across the country,” the DEA’s Brown said. “They move into an area, then focus on neighborhoods where the money is.”

Federal drug task forces are good at rolling up drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) like these.

Any review of federal court files shows that’s true. Few, if any, cases go to trial. Defense attorneys focus instead on downplaying the role of their clients in the trafficking organization to get sentences below 10 years instead of 20 years.

The problem is that as fast as federal narcotics agents and the local agencies working with them roll up one organization, another is ready to take its place.

Veteran criminal defense attorney Joseph Riggs was called on to represent one of the ubiquitous heroin delivery drivers from Nayarit, Mexico.

“We were just getting ready for this fellow to get sentenced in federal court, about a year after his arrest,” Riggs said.

“I got a call from the federal Public Defender’s Office about representing another defendant who had just gotten arrested,” he said. “When I looked at the complaint, it showed my new client was involved in the same sort of operation working out of the same house in northwest Albuquerque. My original client hadn’t even been sentenced, yet.”

“As a citizen,” Riggs said, “I just found that offensive.”

Heroin drives cartels

“They always forget about heroin,” retired DEA agent Phil Jordan said in a recent telephone interview.

Federal and local narcotics agents seized cash and pounds of brown powder heroin from Mexican national drug dealers who set up shop in Albuquerque. (Courtesy of Dept. of Justice)

“The people who run drug policy always push it down the priority ladder,” he said. “Then, it comes around to bite them.”

“Heroin trafficking is at the core of the Mexican cartels,” he said. “It isn’t sexy. It isn’t pretty. But they’ve been moving heroin for decades, and they make money at it.”

Over the course of his career, Jordan ran the cocaine desk in Washington, D.C., and the El Paso Intelligence Center. He was the special agent in charge of the Albuquerque office, and later he held the same post in Dallas.

He brought so much publicity on the leader of the Juárez Cartel, Amado Carrillo Fuentes, that many people believe Carrillo had Jordan’s younger brother killed.

Jordan believes that.

He is an iconoclast who never had many friends in the DEA hierarchy but was highly regarded by field agents, particularly those who worked undercover.

“They never cared for the truth in Washington,” Jordan said in a recent telephone interview.

Jordan, who grew up in El Paso and played basketball at the University of New Mexico before joining the DEA, said honchos in Washington never viewed Mexican heroin as a serious problem because the market was mostly in the southwestern United States.

The current high-quality heroin in New Mexico reminds Jordan of a situation in the mid-1990s in the Dallas area.

“We had a serious problem with high-purity heroin hitting the wealthy suburbs,” Jordan said. “Good kids from good families,  high school basketball players, overdosing on heroin.

“No one wanted to believe it. Everyone was in denial.”

Heroin, he said, should always be a priority in federal narcotics agencies.

“Guys like Chapo Guzman, the head of the Sinaloa Cartel, cut their teeth running heroin,” he said. “Heroin is the trunk, and every other poison these guys smuggle are branches from that tree.”

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