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California Central District Drug Threat Assessment
Mexican black tar is the most prevalent type of heroin available in the Central District. Los Angeles serves as a major distribution center and transshipment point for Mexican black tar and brown powdered heroin destined for locations in California as well as other U.S. cities. Mexican black tar heroin is increasing in availability and purity throughout the district. South American heroin, produced and supplied by Colombian DTOs, is also available in the area. Although Southeast Asian and Southwest Asian heroin are transshipped through Los Angeles to the eastern United States, these types are not encountered as frequently by law enforcement.
Mexican DTOs control the production, transportation, and distribution of Mexican heroin. Most Mexican heroin is smuggled overland across the U.S.-Mexico border by individual couriers and moved into the district for local, regional, and national distribution. Heroin activity is high because the Central District is a major transshipment point for the distribution of black tar heroin destined for cities primarily throughout the western United States. The Los Angeles HIDTA documented 953 heroin-related law enforcement actions in FY1999, representing 6 percent of all drug-related law enforcement actions in its area of responsibility and just a 3 percent decrease from the 987 heroin-related actions reported in FY1998.
Available drug use information indicates heroin abuse may be leveling off in the Central District. According to CADDS, heroin admissions, while accounting for 56 percent of total FY2000 admissions, declined 16 percent from 43,895 in FY1994 to 36,717 in FY2000. Though heroin treatment admissions declined annually between FY1994 and FY1997, treatment admissions in years since have remained relatively stable. (See Table 2.) Injection remains the most common method of administration, although the percentage of those injecting fell slightly while the percentage of those smoking increased.
Drug-related deaths remained fairly steady between FY1993 and FY1996; however, there was a 27 percent decrease from FY1996 (397) to FY1997 (290). Opiate-related deaths represented 25 percent of all drug-related deaths during this period.
According to statistics from DAWN, the estimated number of ED heroin/morphine mentions for the metropolitan area of Los Angeles-Long Beach increased slightly in 1999 to 2,955 following a downward trend from 3,724 mentions in 1993 to 2,531 in 1997. DAWN ME data show the number of heroin/morphine-related deaths declined from 554 in 1996 to 444 in 1998, a decrease of 20 percent. Though the number of heroin/morphine-related deaths declined, the drug still ranked first as the primary cause of drug-related deaths in Los Angeles.
According to data from ADAM, the percentage of adult male arrestees testing positive for opiates in Los Angeles declined from 11 percent in 1990 to 6 percent in 1998. Female adult arrestees testing positive for opiates declined from 18 percent in 1990 to 9 percent in 1998. In the 1999 ADAM report, the percentage of female adult arrestees testing positive for opiates was 8 compared to 6 percent for adult male arrestees. These figures mirror those on the national level, where the median for adult female arrestees testing positive for opiates was 8 percent and the median for adult male arrestees was 6 percent.
Mexican heroin continues to be the predominant type available within the Central District. Both the availability and purity of Mexican black tar and brown powder are increasing. Mexican black tar is the heroin of choice in the Los Angeles HIDTA. South American heroin, primarily controlled by Colombian DTOs, is increasingly encountered within the district. Southwest Asian heroin is not frequently encountered in the district nor does the Los Angeles HIDTA report a significant Southeast Asian heroin user population.
The Los Angeles HIDTA reports that heroin purity levels fluctuate between 9 and 67 percent, and that most street-level samples average 25 percent. A rise in heroin purity over the last few years has led to an increase in heroin overdoses. The higher purity levels of Mexican black tar heroin can be attributed to Mexican DTOs increasing purity to maintain control of the market. The wholesale price of black tar heroin, however, has remained stable at $16,000 to $21,600 per kilogram.
The DEA Domestic Monitor Program reports heroin is increasing in availability and purity throughout the area. The average purity level for a gram of black tar heroin in the Los Angeles area increased approximately 7 percent--to 40 percent--during the first quarter of FY2000 and remained at that level during the second quarter.
A recent investigation revealed that one Mexican group was selling half-gram doses of black tar heroin--at purity levels of 60 to 85 percent--for $10 per dose. This heroin was distributed not only in the Los Angeles area, but also throughout the United States. The DEA Los Angeles Field Division reports that an ounce of Mexican black tar heroin at purity levels of 33 to 67 percent sells for $850 to $1,000.
Southeast Asian heroin is available in the Los Angeles area for approximately $2,000-$3,500 per ounce. In at least one instance, Southeast Asian heroin, with an 88 percent purity level, was obtained from a Thai heroin trafficker.
While the amount of heroin seized in the Los Angeles HIDTA decreased 54 percent, from 52 pounds in FY1997 to 24 pounds in FY1998, seizures more than tripled to 78.6 pounds in FY1999. The amount of heroin seized by the USCS at ports in the district decreased 61 percent from 107 pounds in FY1998 to 51 pounds in FY1999, and increased 73 percent to 88 pounds in FY2000. (See Table 3.)
The nearly total control of the heroin market in the Central District by Mexican DTOs supplying black tar and brown powdered heroin reduces the level of violence normally created by competition. However, there are still many instances of heroin-related violence within the district. There are no fewer than 51 different street gangs in the Central District that distribute heroin at the retail level. The Sinaloan Cowboys, a violent Mexican gang that controls some of the retail heroin distribution in the Los Angeles area, employs street gang members in the United States to commit assassinations and provide security for drug transportation.
Heroin users are generally nonviolent, but to support their habit, they often will squander savings and assets to purchase heroin. When all possible sources of income are exhausted, users may panhandle or become low-level drug distributors to support their addiction. Some even commit burglary and robbery to obtain the money needed to buy the drug.
Opium is not cultivated nor is heroin produced in the Central District. The heroin that is transshipped through, and consumed in, the district is produced in foreign countries. Southeast Asian heroin is processed from opium poppies grown in the geographical area known as the Golden Triangle, which includes the countries of Myanmar (Burma), Laos, and Thailand. Southwest Asian heroin is processed from opium poppies grown in the area known as the Golden Crescent, which includes the countries of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Turkey. South American heroin is processed from opium poppies grown in the Andean mountain range in South America. Primarily Colombian traffickers control the processing and distribution of this type of heroin.
Mexican black tar and brown powdered heroin are processed from opium poppies grown along the spine of the Sierra Madre in western Mexico, from the tristate area of Sinaloa, Chihuahua, and Durango to the states of Guerrero and Oaxaca in southern Mexico. The state of Michoacan is a significant source of opium and opium gum and a recent investigation identified the state of Nayarit as a production source. Although only about 2 percent of the world's illicit opium is grown in Mexico, nearly all of it is processed into heroin and shipped to the United States. Estimates place Mexican heroin production in 2000 at approximately 3 metric tons.
According to the Los Angeles HIDTA, the Central District is a transshipment point for the distribution of Mexican black tar and brown powdered heroin destined for California, the Pacific Northwest, the Southwest, and the Midwest. The Midwest and East Coast are destinations for Southeast Asian heroin.
Most Mexican heroin is smuggled overland across the U.S.-Mexico border by individual couriers. Heroin is smuggled through POEs, usually concealed in secret compartments in commercial and private vehicles. Heroin is commonly smuggled into Southern California from Tijuana via the San Ysidro POE, from Mexicali via the Calexico POE, and through the Otay Mesa and Tecate POEs. Interstates 5, 15, and 215 as well as various secondary roads in Southern California are frequently used by traffickers to transport heroin into the Central District where it is stored in stash houses and warehouses. Interstates 10 and 40 provide west-east routes used to move the heroin to markets throughout the United States.
Larger pound quantities are transported in vehicles via interstate highways while airplane passengers and backpackers transport smaller quantities. Concealment methods include the use of book covers, toys, and furniture. Heroin traffickers also use couriers who ingest heroin pellets as a way to transport heroin into the district and other areas. Mail services are also used and parcels are often delivered to post office boxes obtained through the use of false identification. The U.S. Attorney for the Central District reports that mail shipments are a significant smuggling method for all types of heroin.
A recent investigation provided insight into how Mexican DTO transportation cells move black tar heroin throughout the United States. A Mexican DTO grew opium poppies and processed them into black tar heroin in Nayarit, Mexico. The heroin was transported overland through Mexico and smuggled across the Southwest Border into Arizona and California. The heroin was then shipped by vehicle to Los Angeles, where it was placed in stash houses and eventually transported by courier to locations throughout the United States. The Mexican DTO employed juvenile females and 60-year-old males as couriers. Each courier transported 1 or 2 pounds of heroin per trip either body-packed or hidden in portable radios. In some cases, the heroin was packaged and shipped via mail services. Destinations for this heroin included Anchorage, Alaska; Phoenix and Yuma, Arizona; Bakersfield, Los Angeles and San Diego, California; Denver, Colorado; Atlanta, Georgia; Honolulu, Hawaii; Chicago, Illinois; Detroit, Michigan; Las Vegas and Reno, Nevada; Albuquerque, New Mexico; Cleveland, Columbus, and Steubenville, Ohio; Portland, Oregon; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Nashville, Tennessee; Corpus Christi, Texas; and Salt Lake City, Utah. The DTO also had distribution cells in Alabama, Kentucky, Minnesota, New Jersey, and West Virginia; however, these cells were not identified with any particular city in those states.
Mexican DTOs, including polydrug organizations, and Mexican criminal groups control the distribution of Mexican heroin at all levels. Mexican black tar heroin is the predominant type found in the Central District. Although the district does not have a large Southeast and Southwest Asian heroin user population, law enforcement continues to encounter both types of heroin. South American heroin is also present in the Central District, but it is not known whether it is being distributed for use in the district or just being transshipped through the area.
Mexican criminal groups control the retail distribution of heroin in the Central District. In addition, African American and Hispanic street gangs play a key role in the distribution of heroin in some areas. Mexican black tar heroin is the most common type sold at the street level in Los Angeles.
Personal communication devices, such as cellular phones and pagers, have changed the way retail distributors sell heroin. Currently, the most common method of distribution is through a call-and-deliver system. Delivery service provides the dealer with fewer risks and greater control over the drug transaction than conventional open-air sales.
Mexican DTOs, including polydrug organizations, and Mexican criminal groups control the wholesale distribution of Mexican black tar and brown powdered heroin within the Central District. Heroin trafficking by Mexican organizations varies; methods of operation are different depending on the size, structure, capabilities, and resources of the organizations.
The Los Angeles area is a storage location and distribution center for kilogram quantities of Southeast Asian heroin. Los Angeles-area Thai, Sino-Thai, and Chinese traffickers control the distribution of the drug, and although many Thai groups trafficking Southeast Asian heroin have been dismantled, others continue to operate in the Los Angeles area. The U.S. Attorney for the Central District also reports that the most significant organization trafficking in Southeast Asian heroin is the Nwanko Nigerian organization.
According to DEA, there is no significant information regarding Southwest Asian heroin activity. Though the availability of Southwest Asian heroin is limited, Los Angeles is believed to be a transshipment point for distribution to cities across the country.
The Los Angeles HIDTA reports significant seizures of South American heroin in FY2000, but it is not known whether the heroin was destined for distribution within or beyond the Los Angeles area. The HIDTA also indicates Colombian heroin traffickers are attempting to expand operations and the USCS Los Angeles Area Intelligence Unit notes that Colombian traffickers are becoming central players in the heroin market. The Los Angeles Police Department made two large South American heroin seizures in the past year.
Mexican criminal groups dominate the distribution of Mexican heroin at the retail level. Open-air sales, the traditional method of selling heroin on street corners, are becoming much less common. The call-and-deliver system using phones and pagers is the preferred method for conducting heroin sales in the Los Angeles area. Buyers order by telephone and distributors deliver it to the buyers' homes or other agreed-upon locations. Most of these sales are conducted from private residences.
The Sinaloan Cowboys is identified as one of the gangs responsible for the retail distribution of Mexican heroin in the Los Angeles area. Members of the Cowboys are ruthless, very loyal to the group, and do not fear law enforcement. The Sinaloan Cowboys are profiled in the Cocaine section of this report.
African American and Hispanic street gang members in South Central Los Angeles also are heavily involved in the street distribution of the drug. These gangs generally purchase the heroin from Mexican organizations. Street retailers known as "runners" are assigned a route and deliver heroin to known buyers. Mexican black tar heroin is the predominant type distributed by African American and Hispanic gangs. The heroin is usually packaged in small balloons and is often kept in the dealer's mouth during deals. Some of the gangs distributing heroin include Los Pachucones, Diablos, and Demons in Riverside; East Side Longos, Insane Crip Gang, and Rolling 20's Crips in Long Beach; and the 18th Street Gang, Vatos Locos, and Devious Hoodlums in Anaheim.
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