DEA Congressional Testimony
January 22, 1999

Statement of
Vincent Mazzilli, Special Agent in Charge
Miami Field Division
Drug Enforcement Administration
United States Department of Justice

Before the
Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy and Human Resources

Chairman Mica, Members of the Subcommittee: I appreciate the opportunity to appear today to discuss the topic of: Our Drug Crisis: Where Do We Go From Here? My comments today will be limited to an objective assessment of the heroin problem which is currently facing the United States. As many of you are aware, heroin trafficking and abuse is not a new issue to law enforcement.

The heroin epidemic originated in the U.S. during the 1950's and 1960's, when ninety-five percent of the heroin being smuggled into the country was entering through New York City. Most of this heroin was distributed throughout the U.S. under the control of traditional American organized crime. In the 1970's, criminal elements within American organized crime began to relinquish their control and influence over the heroin market to criminal groups from Southeast Asia, Southwest Asia, and the Middle East who began to emerge as the preeminent force in heroin production, trafficking and distribution.

Recently, the heroin market has experienced a similar shift, from the domination of Southeast Asian heroin just a few years ago, to the increased penetration in the wholesale and retail markets by South American criminal groups, trafficking in South American heroin, especially in the larger East Coast cities.

In recent years, law enforcement investigations and various indicator data, began to reflect that the nation's largest heroin markets, located in New York, Boston, Newark, Baltimore, and Philadelphia were dominated by South American heroin. During the same time frame, the purity of this South American-produced heroin was reaching record highs. A combination of higher heroin purity, low prices, and ready availability has taken its toll on cities such as Orlando, Baltimore, and Plano, Texas. Today's heroin mortality figures are the highest ever recorded. Close to 4,000 people have died of heroin overdoses in each of the last four years. These mortality figures exceed even those which occurred during the 1970's, when heroin overdose deaths reached a high point of just over 2,000. As a result of these disturbing trends, law enforcement and our demand reduction counterparts across the U.S. have aggressively addressed this growing threat.

The dramatic increase in street-level heroin purity has contributed to greater trauma and death. The situation we face today, one of high rates of trauma in our emergency rooms and high mortality rates among heroin users, was brought about by strategic management decisions made by both Colombia and Mexico-based trafficking organizations to increase their respective shares of the lucrative U.S. heroin market.

In the early 1990's, independent traffickers from Colombia began to supply retail level outlets for heroin distribution, primarily in the Northeastern U.S., with high quality, high purity heroin. Colombian traffickers had spent several years cultivating opium and refining their heroin production capabilities, positioning themselves to take advantage of the gradually diminishing crack cocaine market. By supplying heroin dealers with high purity heroin to be given away as free samples, and by establishing "brand name" heroin, to garner customer loyalty, the Colombian traffickers quickly gained a foothold in the burgeoning heroin markets along the East Coast. These traffickers in South American heroin have virtually squeezed the ethnic Chinese criminal networks out of the market in the Northeast by offering not only high purity heroin at competitive prices, but frequently providing easier terms for purchase. Colombia trafficking organizations often provide heroin on consignment or offer credit on transactions. Few buyers of South American heroin dare renege on any agreement with Colombian traffickers due to their fierce reputation for strict enforcement on drug transactions. Colombian traffickers also began using Puerto Rico as a major transit area for distribution of their product to places such as Florida and Louisiana.

Of the estimated six metric tons of heroin produced in Colombia during 1997, virtually all was believed to be destined for the U.S. market. The heroin trade in Colombia remains in the hands of independent trafficking groups, with preliminary information indicating the involvement of certain major traffickers in the North Valle area. Heroin appears to be produced primarily in the Pereira region of Colombia. South American heroin is also emerging in such geographically diverse cities as Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Miami, Ft. Lauderdale, New Orleans, Detroit, Chicago, and Orlando.

The use of couriers traveling on commercial airlines is the primary means by which Colombia-based groups smuggle their heroin to U.S. markets. In the Continental U.S., the principal cities of importation are Miami and New York. The heroin is either smuggled directly into Miami or New York, or via transit points such as Puerto Rico, Costa Rica, Argentina, Ecuador, the Dominican Republic, Panama, Venezuela, and Mexico. Couriers employ a variety of means to smuggle heroin into the U.S., which includes the use of false-sided suitcases, body packs, and internal body carries. Once the heroin enters the United States, it is transported through a variety of methods such as domestic flights, private vehicles, trains, and buses, to retail markets. The criminal networks operating in Colombia frequently rely upon criminal organizations from the Dominican Republic who have distribution systems already in place in Puerto Rico and on Hispaniola.

With the influx of high purity heroin from South America, Orlando and other U.S. cities, began to experience a dramatic shift in abuser populations. As recently as the early 1990's, the heroin problem in Orlando, as with much of the rest of the U.S., was typically associated with a limited addict population. High purity heroin has enabled users to administer the drug by "snorting" or smoking rather than by injection. This has drawn many new users, in particular teens, into the abuse of heroin. The glamorization of the use of heroin by the media has also contributed to the rise in the abuse of heroin, which has fueled the mistaken belief that heroin administered by snorting or smoking is not addictive, nor as deadly as intravenous use.

Data from the Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) indicate a steady rise in the heroin addict population and related emergency room episodes beginning in 1990. These levels peaked in 1995 at 72,229, before falling in 1996 to 70,463. Heroin-related deaths more than doubled from 1,980 in 1990 to 3,980 in 1996.

Colombian-based trafficking groups have successfully exploited the existing and highly efficient retail drug distribution networks predominantly controlled by ethnic Dominican criminals operating in the Northeast. The Drug Enforcement Administration's (DEA) investigative reporting and indicator programs have tracked this increasing dominance of South American heroin since 1993. According to our Domestic Monitoring Program (DMP), the national average purity of all heroin in the U.S. is approximately 38.5 percent. South American heroin registers seventy to eighty percent pure in key East Coast heroin markets. Reportedly, levels in Orlando have reached as high as 92 percent at the street level.

This high purity South American heroin, low prices, and ready availability in East Coast drug markets has had an adverse affect on may East Coast communities such as Baltimore and Orlando. Novice and long-term heroin users alike, began dying at alarming rates. In Orlando, in 1996, for example, 37 people, many of them surprisingly young, died from heroin overdoes related to high purity. In 1996, Baltimore led the nation's emergency room mentions.

An article in The Orlando Sentinel, dated January 17, 1999, reports that heroin overdoses were responsible for the deaths of twice as many people in 1998 as in 1997, with the final toll likely breaking fifty once final toxicology reporting statistics are released from area Medical Examiners Offices. In response to the increased availability of heroin, the high rate of heroin-related overdose deaths in the Orlando area, the Orlando DEA, and our state and local counterparts have increased our efforts to target, identify and arrest local heroin distributors.

While law enforcement efforts have always faced many challenges in building heroin investigations, today's heroin trade is in many ways, far more complicated that it has been in the past. The key to our success in fighting the heroin problem is to target the command and control of these criminal organizations through cooperation among Federal, state, local, and international law enforcement. We must also continue our efforts in the partnership we share between law enforcement and the demand reduction community to educate Americans about the dangers of heroin.

As a result, several initiatives have been undertaken by the DEA that are noteworthy. In February, 1997, the DEA hosted a National Heroin Conference in Washington, D.C. Attendees at this conference included 300 participants from throughout the nation and around the globe, who gathered to address the rising heroin abuse and trafficking trends. Part of this conference was dedicated to examining trafficker strategies for heroin production and to determine why the current climate in our country had made heroin so appealing to this whole new group of heroin abusers. Additionally, the DEA also participated in regionally -based conferences, such as the Central Florida Heroin Trafficking and Abuse Awareness Conference held in Orlando, Florida, during August, 1997. This conference brought together experts from U.S. law enforcement, international law enforcement, as well as experts in the area of demand reduction and prevention. The purpose of this conference was to discuss the major threat posed by South American heroin and develop solutions to the heroin problem.

In addition to the collective efforts of the law enforcement community to identify and address the heroin epidemic, Congress also recognized this emerging threat and responded with additional resources. Beginning with the 1998 budget process the DEA has been allotted an additional 268 positions, which includes 119 Special Agent positions, all of which are dedicated to specifically addressing the developing heroin situation.

Cooperative Efforts to Attack the Heroin Epidemic Facing the Orlando Area

Since 1996, the Orlando DEA District Office has tripled the number of heroin investigations. A majority of these investigations involve the importation and distribution of South American heroin. Nineteen individuals were arrested by DEA's Orlando office in 1996. During Fiscal Year 1998, sixty-nine individuals were arrested, demonstrating the severity of the problem.

In 1998, the Central Florida area was designated as a High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area by the Office of National Drug Control Policy. In an effort to address the situation in Orlando, a Heroin initiative was also approved. Under the guidance of the Orlando DEA, a Heroin Task Force Group was initiated which is comprised of DEA Special Agents and state and local officers from nine other law enforcement agencies. This group began operations in July 1998. The Heroin Task Force Group's sole mission is to address the growing heroin threat in the six county Orlando area. One of the Task Force's first investigative efforts, which concluded in November, 1998, culminated in the arrest of 14 individuals who were charged Federally, and the seizure of approximately three and one-half pounds of high purity South American heroin. This criminal organization had been responsible for the distribution of over ten pounds of heroin over a three month period. This investigation is continuing into the groups criminal activities. Other Task Force investigations have led to the arrests of 58 individuals on Federal and state charges of trafficking in heroin.

The Heroin Task Force also works cooperatively with local drug abuse investigators and homicide detectives to investigate and bring charges against groups or individuals who provide heroin to a person which causes death or serious injury. Since the inception of the Task Force operations late last summer, 11 individuals have been arrested in the Orlando area and have been charged with violations stemming from overdose death or injury.

DEA's commitment to the heroin problem continues in other ongoing initiatives. In response to the situation in Orlando, the Orlando Resident office was upgraded to a District office to include five additional Special Agent positions and one Intelligence Analyst. The Orlando DEA office also participates with twenty other DEA offices in cities across the nation experiencing significant heroin problems, in the Domestic Monitor Program. This program provides Federal, state and local law enforcement counterparts with information regarding the nature of the domestic heroin problem. Through analysis of samples of heroin obtained in cities across the U.S., information gleaned regarding price and purity, as well as changes and developments in trafficking patterns, marketing practices, and heroin availability, is readily accessible to law enforcement.

Conclusion

Drug Traffickers which control the drug production, marketing and distribution in the United States know no national boundaries and utilize the latest technologies and delivery systems available to enhance their illicit activities. In the early 1990's, Colombia-based traffickers were drawing reportedly on the expertise of both Southwest Asian and Southeast Asian heroin chemists to assist them in the production of the high-purity heroin now flooding the East Coast. Today, Mexico-based trafficking organizations are seeking the expertise of Colombian-based chemists to increase their heroin marketability for expansion into other markets in the United States. It is critical that intelligence gathering and the resulting investigations into these monolithic trafficking organizations continue to be coordinated and developed to assist us in meeting the challenge of this ever-increasing threat.

Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee: I appreciate the opportunity to appear before you today to address the drug crisis. I will be happy to answer any questions that you may have.

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