National Drug Intelligence Center
The Houston metropolitan area is the major drug market in the HIDTA region; several significant outlying markets also exist in the region, including Beaumont/Port Arthur, Corpus Christi, the southern Houston HIDTA region, and PINS.
Houston, located in Harris County, is a major drug distribution center that supplies Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, New York, and Philadelphia with illicit drugs, primarily cocaine and marijuana. Houston's well-developed highway system, established financial infrastructure, racial and ethnic diversity, and large volume of international trade contribute to the area's role as a major transshipment point for illicit drugs destined for U.S. drug markets and drug proceeds destined for Mexico. The significant number of drug-related investigations linked to the city, such as cases in Atlanta, Chicago, Miami, Newark, New Orleans, New York, and St. Louis, exemplifies Houston's role as a key national drug distribution and money laundering center.
Very little drug production occurs in Houston because of the ready availability of drugs from Mexico; however, powder cocaine is converted to crack, cannabis is cultivated, and methamphetamine is produced to varying degrees. Significant amounts of powder cocaine are converted into crack cocaine within the city for local and regional consumption. Crack cocaine is often converted in crack houses, hotel rooms, and garages.
An increasing number of indoor cannabis grow sites have been discovered by law enforcement officials in the Houston metropolitan area over the past 2 years. More than 55 grow operations were dismantled in the Houston HIDTA region in 2006 and 2007; most were located in Harris County and its surrounding areas (Fort Bend and Montgomery Counties). Cannabis cultivators typically locate grow sites in densely populated metropolitan areas of Houston; the sites range from simple, one-house grows to a network of multiple houses linked to one organization. More sophisticated hydroponic grow sites are generally operated by Vietnamese organizations; smaller, less sophisticated operations are generally run by Caucasian independent growers. Vietnamese cannabis cultivators in Houston have been linked by law enforcement officials to traffickers in California, Florida, Louisiana, Minnesota, Utah, and Washington as well as in Canada. Indoor cannabis cultivators realize higher profits because indoor cultivation is a year-round process with four to six harvests per year and controlled conditions that enable growers to produce high-quality marijuana that commands higher prices in most drug markets. A pound of locally produced hydroponic marijuana usually sells for $2,500 to $5,000 per pound compared with Mexican marijuana, which sells for $280 to $500 per pound. Most hydroponic marijuana grown in the HIDTA region is sold locally; some is also transported to other areas of Texas, such as Austin and Dallas, and to Louisiana for distribution.
Methamphetamine production has decreased in Harris County over the past few years. According to the El Paso Intelligence Center (EPIC) National Seizure System (NSS), the number of methamphetamine laboratories seized by law enforcement in Harris County decreased 57 percent from 2005 through 2007. (See Table 1.) The enactment of precursor chemical control laws in August 2005 greatly contributed to this decrease. The wide availability of Mexican ice methamphetamine in the HIDTA region has also contributed to the decrease in local production. However, methamphetamine production does occur in Houston, with methamphetamine producers attempting to circumvent chemical control laws by using fraudulent identification to obtain pseudoephedrine through retailers, turning to new sources of supply for precursor chemicals, and employing alternative production methods.2
Table 1. Number of Methamphetamine Laboratories Seized in the Houston HIDTA Region, by County, 2005-2007
Source: El Paso Intelligence Center, National Seizure System, as of January
* HIDTA counties not listed had no laboratories seized from 2005 through 2007.
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Houston is one of the most significant transshipment points used by Mexican DTOs to facilitate drug distribution from the Southwest Border to major market areas throughout the United States. Mexican DTOs primarily use private and commercial vehicles on interstates and highways, particularly U.S. Highways 59 and 10, to transport drugs to Houston. (See Figure 2.) U.S. Highway 59 extends directly from the Laredo port of entry (POE) to Houston and also connects with US 281 and US 77, which provide routes of travel from the McAllen and Brownsville areas. Interstate 10 provides access to the city from El Paso through San Antonio. Additionally, the proposed Trans-Texas Corridor, or I-69, which is expected to extend from Mexico to Canada, traversing the Houston area, will quite likely be used by Mexican DTOs upon its completion to smuggle drug shipments.
Figure 2. Houston HIDTA region transportation infrastructure.
Mexican DTOs also use couriers on buses and trains to transport illicit drugs to Houston. At least two Mexican-owned bus companies operate daily routes from Mexico through Houston to destinations in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia. Couriers on these buses transport cocaine, marijuana, and methamphetamine for distribution in these states; they also transport drug proceeds back to Mexico. Several rail systems also operate in the Houston area, including Amtrak as well as the Burlington Northern Santa Fe, Union Pacific, Kansas City Southern, and Texas Mexican Railroads;3 however, the degree of use by traffickers to transport drugs using these rail systems is an intelligence gap.
DTOs exploit air conveyances in Houston to transport illicit drugs to and from the HIDTA region. Law enforcement agencies occasionally seize illicit drugs and currency from passengers on domestic and international flights and from freight arriving at the George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH) and Hobby Airport. For example, in April 2007 a Nigerian national bound for London, England, was arrested at IAH after attempting to smuggle 7 kilograms of cocaine in a toy box concealed in his checked luggage. The large number of passenger and cargo activities at these airports provides camouflage to traffickers who smuggle illicit drugs through these airports. Over 52 million passengers and 387,000 metric tons of air cargo passed through these airports in 2007. Additionally, international carriers are increasingly initiating service at Houston's airports as a result of the city's economic growth. Over the past 15 months, several Asian air cargo services have begun service to Houston, and nonstop passenger flights to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Singapore, and Moscow, Russia, began in March 2008. Such international service may expose Houston and the HIDTA region to an increased threat of air smuggling.
Maritime smuggling through the Port of Houston poses a viable threat to the HIDTA region--a threat that could increase in the long term. The amount of cargo traversing the Port of Houston has consecutively increased over the past 10 years, with more than 16 million tons of cargo moving through its facilities in 2007. The Port of Houston also links the city with 1,053 ports in 203 countries; these links make the port vulnerable to drug smuggling. Law enforcement reporting indicates that South American heroin is being smuggled into the United States via commercial cargo vessels and cruise ship lines. Additionally, in February 2007, the Port of Houston opened the Bayport Container Terminal, which is expected to triple the port's container-handling capacity when fully developed, enabling it to handle 2.3 million TEUs (twenty-foot equivalent units).4 In 2008 the Port of Houston will also open a cruise ship terminal in which as many as 1.7 million passengers can be accommodated. The increase in the number of containers processed through the port facilities and the addition of a large cruise ship terminal could enable DTOs to more easily smuggle illicit drug shipments using maritime methods.
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2. In August 2005
Texas passed precursor control legislation requiring pharmacies that engage in
over-the-counter (OTC) sales of tablet forms of products containing ephedrine,
pseudoephedrine, or norpseudoephedrine to keep those products behind the
pharmacy counter or in a locked case within 30 feet of, and in a direct line of
sight from, a pharmacy counter staffed by an employee of the pharmacy. The state
law does not apply to liquid, liquid capsule, or liquid-gel capsule forms of the
products. Additionally, before completing the OTC sale of a product containing
the above-mentioned precursors, a pharmacy employee must ask for photo
identification and a signature from the buyer and must record the name of the
person making the purchase, the date of purchase, and the item and number of
grams purchased. Individuals may not purchase more than two packages or 6 grams
of ephedrine, pseudoephedrine, norpseudoephedrine, or a combination of those
substances at the same time.
3. The Texas Mexican Railroad is a 157-mile rail line between Laredo and Corpus Christi, Texas. This railway also provides service to Houston and Beaumont, Texas, through trackage rights--an arrangement between railroad companies that permits one company to operate over certain sections of track owned by another railroad company.
4. Twenty-foot equivalent units, or TEUs, are a standardized maritime industry measurement used when counting cargo containers of varying lengths. TEU measurements are inexact; one TEU most commonly is equivalent to the capacity of a cargo container measuring 20 feet (length) by 8 feet (width) by 8.5 feet (height) with a volume of 1,350 cubic feet.
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