National Drug Intelligence Center
Houston is a primary drug distribution center in the southwestern United States and is used by numerous DTOs to supply illicit drugs to drug markets in the HIDTA region as well as to major market areas throughout the United States. Traffickers in Houston supply cocaine, marijuana and, to a lesser extent, heroin, methamphetamine, MDMA, and diverted pharmaceuticals to distributors in major market areas such as Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Detroit, Kansas City, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, and St. Louis. Prior to shipping illicit drugs to other areas, traffickers in Houston often store the drugs at local stash sites. The traffickers' operations are extremely vulnerable at these stash sites; seizures of illicit drugs from locations in which large quantities are stored typically result in a much greater loss for DTOs.
Houston is one of the most significant cocaine distribution centers in the United States. Houston has not experienced the wide fluctuations in cocaine availability that have occurred in many major drug markets throughout the United States over the past year. The price of cocaine remained fairly constant at the wholesale and retail levels in Houston throughout much of 2007; however, from December 2006 to December 2007, the price of cocaine increased from between $13,500 and $17,500 per kilogram to between $15,000 and $19,000 per kilogram and from between $400 and $800 per ounce to between $600 and $1,000 per ounce. Anecdotal law enforcement reporting during this time indicates that cocaine availability and purity did not change, suggesting that there may be another reason for the price fluctuation, other than a cocaine shortage. Further, according to NSS data, cocaine seizure amounts in Harris County decreased 57 percent from 2005 through 2007; however, seizure totals for the entire HIDTA region are similar to those for 2005. In fact, cocaine seizure amounts have increased in the counties of Fort Bend (77%) and Galveston (seizures increased from zero in 2005 to 100 in 2007)--which are located in the immediate Houston area--and in Nueces County (585%), indicating that DTOs may have changed trafficking patterns within the HIDTA region. Additionally, changes in law enforcement operations and priorities may have impacted the amount of cocaine seized as well as the location in which it was seized. (See Table 2.)
Table 2. Illicit Drugs Seized in Houston HIDTA Counties, in Kilograms, 2005-2007*
Source: El Paso Intelligence Center, National Seizure System.
* Data as of January 30, 2008. Amounts of less than 1 kilogram are shown as zero. NSS data are based on voluntary reporting and may not include all seizures occurring in the Houston HIDTA region.
** Cocaine seizure totals reflect only powder and crack cocaine.
*** Methamphetamine seizure totals reflect only powder and ice methamphetamine.
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Houston is a principal transshipment area in the United States for Mexican marijuana; the amount seized in the Houston area has increased over the past 3 years. According to NSS data, marijuana/hashish seizures in Harris County increased 47 percent from 2005 through 2007. (See Table 2.) Further, several large seizures of marijuana took place in the area in 2006 and 2007, confirming Houston's role as a principal transshipment area. In March 2007 law enforcement officers seized over 9,000 kilograms of marijuana from two school buses and two rental vans on a property located in southeast Houston. In December 2006 the Harris County Sheriff's Office seized 502 bales of marijuana that weighed nearly 7,000 kilograms and had a street value of $25 million to $40 million. Mexican marijuana that transits Houston is typically destined for Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina.
Heroin transported to Houston is distributed locally as well as to other U.S. drug markets; however, the amount of heroin seized has decreased over the past 3 years. According to NSS data, seizure amounts decreased 50 percent overall from 2005 through 2007 in Harris County. (See Table 2.) The amount of heroin seized in the overall HIDTA region in 2007 also decreased, by 47 percent. However, in 2007 anecdotal law enforcement reporting indicated that there had been no significant changes in availability, distribution, price, or purity. Several factors may account for this trend: DTOs may be smuggling heroin along different routes or often using other transportation modes, such as sea or air, that have not been detected by law enforcement. Moreover, the flow of heroin into the HIDTA region may have decreased, but changes would not have been apparent because the drug could have been diverted from other source areas to fill the void in Houston. The changes most likely would have been noticed in markets supplied by DTOs operating in the Houston area. Furthermore, placement of operations and priorities of law enforcement agencies may have affected how much heroin was seized in 2007. Heroin is transshipped from Houston to markets in California, Louisiana, New York, and Texas.
Methamphetamine is transshipped from Houston to markets in the midwestern and eastern United States; however, methamphetamine seizure amounts in Harris County have declined over the past 3 years, indicating a decreased flow of the drug from Mexico into the area. According to NSS data, methamphetamine seizure amounts decreased 100 percent overall from 1,005 kilograms in 2005 to 2 kilograms in 2007. (See Table 2.) It is probable that these methamphetamine seizure amounts peaked in 2005 because Mexican DTOs had increased ice methamphetamine smuggling into the United States in response to large decreases in powder methamphetamine production that year in the United States. That decrease was compounded locally by the enactment of precursor control legislation in Texas. Further, the Mexican Government has continually strengthened precursor chemical control regulations in Mexico since mid-2004 and increased drug interdiction efforts in 2007, actions that have affected methamphetamine flow into the United States along the entire Southwest Border. These factors quite likely impacted methamphetamine smuggling into Houston and the HIDTA region in 2006 and 2007 and will most likely continue to have an effect in the near term. Methamphetamine is distributed from Houston to markets throughout the midwestern and eastern United States, including those in Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, and Texas.
The diversion of pharmaceutical drugs in Houston has significantly increased; the city has become a key source area for the diverted drugs. Distributors and abusers obtain diverted pharmaceutical drugs by purchasing them on the Internet, doctor-shopping, visiting corrupt pain clinics, obtaining prescriptions from unscrupulous physicians, stealing from pharmacies, forging prescriptions, and smuggling the drugs from Mexico. Moreover, an increasing number of pain clinics in the Houston area are serving as a source of diverted prescription narcotics, such as hydrocodone, for distributors and abusers. Such pain clinics are sometimes owned by unscrupulous physicians and corrupt pharmacists, making it relatively easy for distributors and abusers to obtain pharmaceuticals. Additionally, distributors frequently recruit homeless persons to make straw purchases of pharmaceuticals for them. Once distributors obtain the pharmaceuticals, they distribute them in Houston, throughout Texas, and within drug markets in other states, including Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, and Tennessee.
Schedule III, IV, and V Prescription Drugs Added to the Texas Prescription Monitoring Program
The Texas legislature has passed a bill that will require Schedule III, IV, and V drugs to be monitored through the Texas Prescription Monitoring Program (PMP), which is overseen by the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS). Since 1982, the Texas PMP has monitored Schedule II prescription drugs--which include hydromorphone (Dilaudid), methylphenidate (Ritalin), and oxycodone (OxyContin)--and has been able to effectively reduce the abuse and diversion of these drugs through its monitoring efforts. Currently, the Texas PMP requires medical practitioners to use special forms to write prescriptions for Schedule II drugs and pharmacists to transmit a record of the prescription to Texas DPS. The new legislation will require Texas PMP to monitor Schedule III, IV, and V drugs using this same process and will place increased administrative burdens on Texas DPS. Over the past several years, the abuse and diversion of Schedule III, IV, and V drugs--which include alprazolam (Xanax), benzodiazepine (Valium), codeine, flunitrazepam (rohypnol), hydrocodone (Vicodin), promethazine (lean), and propoxyphene (Darvocet)--have been on the rise. The increased oversight of these drugs through the Texas PMP will quite likely curtail some diversion of these pharmaceuticals and will allow law enforcement to better monitor the diversion of these drugs.
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Associations between Houston and Louisiana drug traffickers have become stronger since Hurricane Katrina. Approximately 150,000 Katrina evacuees relocated to the Houston area. Some of these evacuees were drug traffickers from high-crime areas of New Orleans, and upon relocating to Houston, they formed relationships with drug dealers and gang members. Many of these traffickers have returned to Louisiana, and the relationships that they formed with Houston-based drug dealers and gang members have enabled them to obtain significant quantities of illicit drugs directly from connections in Houston. According to NSS data, the amount of illicit drugs seized in Harris County that were destined for Louisiana substantially increased from 13 kilograms in 2005 to 95 kilograms in 2006 to 287 kilograms in 2007. (These figures apply only to those instances in which a destination state was identified.) Marijuana is the primary drug transported from Houston to Louisiana; cocaine, heroin, MDMA, and diverted pharmaceuticals are also transported to the area.
Significant quantities of cocaine, heroin, marijuana, methamphetamine, and MDMA are distributed in the Houston area at the wholesale level. Mexican DTOs, criminal groups, and prison gangs are the primary wholesale distributors in Houston; they dominate the wholesale distribution of cocaine, Mexican black tar and brown powder heroin, marijuana, and methamphetamine. Colombian and Dominican DTOs and criminal groups also distribute wholesale quantities of cocaine, but to a lesser extent. Colombian and Dominican DTOs and criminal groups dominate the wholesale distribution of South American (SA) heroin. Asian DTOs and criminal groups distribute MDMA and marijuana.
Street and prison gangs, Mexican criminal groups, and local independent dealers distribute illicit drugs at the retail level. Street gangs, prison gangs, and local independent dealers are the primary retail-level distributors of powder and crack cocaine, Mexican black tar and brown powder heroin, SA heroin, and marijuana; Mexican criminal groups also distribute marijuana at the retail level.
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A significant amount of drug-related violent and property crime takes place in Houston. Drug abusers and dealers, particularly crack cocaine and methamphetamine users and dealers, engage in a host of violent and property crimes including assaults, drive-by shootings, home invasions, robberies, burglaries, and firearms violations. Additionally, drug traffickers, particularly street gangs, routinely engage in violent criminal activity to protect and/or expand their drug distribution territory.
Houston is a significant source area for weapons smuggled south into Mexico. Mexican DTOs and their associated enforcement groups generally rely on firearms trafficking from the United States to Mexico to obtain weapons for their smuggling and enforcement operations. Drug traffickers, firearms smugglers, and independent criminals smuggle large quantities of firearms and ammunition from Houston to Mexico on behalf of Mexican DTOs, which then use these weapons to defend territory, eliminate rivals, enforce business dealings, control members, and challenge law enforcement. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) estimates that thousands of weapons are smuggled into Mexico every year. Firearms are typically purchased or stolen from gun stores, pawnshops, gun shows, and private residences prior to being smuggled into Mexico, where they are often sold for a markup of 300 to 400 percent. Moreover, large caches of firearms often are stored on both sides of the Southwest Border for use by Mexican DTOs and their enforcement groups.
Pharmacy burglaries in Houston have dramatically risen, the result of an increasing number of traffickers and abusers seeking diverted pharmaceutical drugs. According to the Houston Police Department, from June to October 2007 (the latest date for which data are available), 94 pharmacy burglaries were reported in the city. These burglaries generally took place at locally owned "mom and pop" pharmacies. During the burglaries, perpetrators reportedly entered the pharmacies in groups of two or three after hours, usually through a broken door or window; in one case the perpetrators drove a vehicle through the front door of a pharmacy in October 2007. In a number of the burglaries, pharmacy owners and employees were involved. Drugs stolen during these burglaries were distributed throughout the HIDTA region and in other states, including Georgia, Louisiana, and Mississippi.
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