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This is an NDIC product. National Drug Intelligence Center
Illinois Drug Threat Assessment 
January 2001


The increasing availability and abuse of SEA and SA heroin is a significant problem, particularly in the Chicago area. (See Appendix for responses to the NDIC National Drug Threat Survey 2000.) While most heroin users in Chicago are African American, heroin abuse by young white users is increasing significantly in the Chicago suburbs. Chicago is both a major destination for heroin and a transshipment point for heroin destined for other areas in the Great Lakes Region and the Midwest. Nigerian and Colombian heroin traffickers use couriers aboard commercial aircraft and package services to import heroin into the state. Mexican DTOs transport Mexican heroin into Chicago employing the same methods used to ship other drugs from the Southwest Border. Most retail heroin sales in Chicago take place on the West Side in a vast open-air drug market dominated by African-American street gangs such as the Gangster Disciples and the Vice Lords.


Heroin abuse in the Chicago area is a significant problem that has increased over the past decade. The Chicago Police Department reports that heroin abuse is increasing, and it rates heroin as the second greatest drug threat in its jurisdiction. Indicators of heroin abuse, such as treatment admissions and overdoses in Chicago, have been increasing for the past decade, according to CEWG statistics. Increasing numbers of suburban users are contributing to the resurgent popularity of heroin. In 1998, Chicago heroin ED mentions per 100,000 were five times the rate of the total United States. Total DAWN statistics from 1991 to 1998 show a dramatic rise of 288 percent in the rate of heroin ED mentions per 100,000 in Chicago. In 1996, nearly 70 percent of the heroin users in Chicago described themselves as daily users, more than double the number of crack users who admitted daily use.

While most heroin users in Chicago are African American, heroin abuse by young white users is increasing significantly in the Chicago area. Between 1997 and 1998, there was a 26 percent increase in heroin ED mentions among Caucasians, a 6 percent increase among African Americans, and a 5 percent increase among Hispanics. Chicago Police Department narcotics officers are arresting more suburban white youth for heroin purchases than in previous years. For example, over the past 2 years police in Naperville, a Chicago suburb, identified and tracked at least 40 high school age heroin users who regularly traveled to Chicago's West Side to purchase heroin. Between 1990 and 1998, the percentage of 15- to 25-year-old arrestees in Chicago testing positive for opiates fell more than 60 percent. While this may seem to contradict reports of increased heroin abuse by youth, it is likely that these new white suburban users have the ability to support their addictions without resorting to stealing or other activities that expose them to the possibility of arrest.

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Most heroin abusers in the Chicago area inhale or snort the drug. Prior to the 1990s, Chicago's heroin user population consisted of aging addicts who had injected heroin for many years. New users, typically young, white suburbanites, look down on older "junkies" who inject heroin. Newer heroin users initially snort heroin, although some eventually switch to injection because as tolerance levels increase, users must snort larger doses to achieve the desired effects. New users are less likely to view heroin as dangerous since the junkie stigma is no longer associated with heroin abuse. Heroin use has been glamorized in the fashion and music industries, further softening the attitudes of youth about heroin. Some young people take heroin to offset the effects of club drugs such as MDMA at rave parties. The use of heroin with cocaine (speedballing) has increased in the Chicago area.

Other indicators that point to an increase in heroin abuse include a 60 percent increase in heroin-related deaths in Chicago in 1997 and an additional 12 percent increase in 1998. (See Chart 3.) Heroin/morphine was listed as the cause in over 50 percent of drug-related deaths in Chicago in 1998.4 In 1999, Chicago arrestees tested under the ADAM Program had the highest opiate percentage for males (20.1) and females (32.4) in the United States. Data from the last 6 months of 1999 reveal that these numbers rose significantly and are approaching the highest rate of heroin abuse mentions per 100,000 recorded in the United States since ADAM data have been collected.

 Chart 3. Chicago DAWN Drug Abuse Deaths

Chart showing Chicago DAWN drug abuse deaths for the years 1995 through 1998, comparing heroin/morphine deaths to total drug abuse deaths.  
Total     Heroin/Morphine
Source: DAWN Annual Medical Examiner Data, 1998.

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The heroin market in Chicago has undergone a significant transformation over the past 15 years. A major change in the type and quantity of heroin in Chicago took place in 1985 following DEA's Operation Durango, which targeted the Herrera organization's drug operations. The Herrera organization supplied virtually the entire Chicago heroin market with Mexican brown powdered and black tar heroin. The success of Operation Durango limited the availability of Mexican heroin and opened a window of opportunity for Nigerians to smuggle SEA heroin into Chicago. Nigerians had readily available supplies of heroin from sources in Thailand and other areas of Southeast Asia. SEA heroin dominated the Chicago market until the introduction of SA heroin from Colombia in 1992. In 1999, DEA's Domestic Monitor Program (DMP), a retail-level heroin purchase program that identifies purity, price, and source of origin, revealed that the retail supplies of SA heroin are increasing. Of the 40 exhibits purchased in FY1999, 13 were identified as SA heroin, 6 as SEA heroin, and 1 as Southwest Asian (SWA) heroin. The remaining samples were not identifiable.

Figure 2. DEA 1999 DMP Purchase Sites

Map of Chicago showing addresses of DEA 1999 DMP purchase sites.

DEA 1999 DMP purchase sites. In 1999, there were 40 DMP purchases in the Chicago area. A source was determined for 20 samples. Of the 20 samples, 13 were found to be South American in origin, 6 were found to be Southeast Asian in origin, and 1 was found to be Southwest Asian in origin. (Note: Only those samples within the Chicago city limits are depicted here.)

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The availability of less expensive, higher purity white heroin from Southeast Asia and South America (primarily Colombia), led to increased abuse over the past decade, particularly in the Chicago area. Prices for a milligram of pure heroin in Chicago are at their lowest level in a decade. See Table 4 for current prices in Chicago. Higher purity heroin allows users to effectively smoke or snort the drug rather than inject it. Heroin purity at the retail level in Chicago rose from 2-4 percent in the early 1980s to an average of 25-30 percent since 1995. Additionally, heroin abuse is increasing not only in low-income urban areas, but also in the more affluent suburbs and especially among teenagers.

Table 4. Heroin Prices, Chicago, 2000

Amount White
Mexican Brown Powder Mexican Black Tar
Gram $100-$125 $100 $100-$200
Ounce $2,500-$3,000 $3,000 $2,500$4,000
Kilogram $120,000-$140,000* $27,000-$32,000 $95,000$100,000

Source: DEA Chicago Field Division, Trends in the Traffic 2d Quarter FY2000.
*Actual street prices are between $60,000 and $80,000.


White Heroin

White heroin refers to any heroin that is white, off-white, or tan in color. Many law enforcement agencies do not conduct the chemical tests that are required to identify the source country.


The amount of heroin seized by law enforcement agencies validates the high level of availability in Illinois. Heroin seizures by state and local law enforcement agencies greatly increased since 1995. In FY1998, the FDSS reported 36.5 kilograms of heroin seized in Illinois, up from 27.8 kilograms seized in FY1997. Seizures by the Chicago Police Department continue to increase; the amount of white heroin seized in 1999 was nearly three times the amount seized in 1998. Illinois State Police statistics for 1999 show that 98 percent of the total heroin seized in Illinois was in Cook County.

Reports from DEA and the Chicago Police Department early in 2000 reveal that SA heroin availability is increasing. The results of the DEA's DMP for FY1999 indicate that half of the identifiable heroin exhibits were of South American origin. The average purity of these heroin exhibits was 33.8 percent. The Chicago Police Department also reports an increase in the availability of SA heroin and lists the primary transporters of all heroin into Chicago as Colombian, Nigerian, and Mexican criminal groups in order of priority. Although all types of heroin (SEA, SA, Mexican brown powdered and black tar, and SWA) are reportedly available, user preference has shifted from Mexican brown powdered heroin to higher purity white heroin. Although heroin availability currently is concentrated in Chicago and its suburbs, reports indicate that availability is rising in surrounding counties as well. Heroin is only rarely available in other parts of the state. When available, it is most often white heroin.

Chicago is a hub for Nigerian heroin trafficking activity in the United States. Nigerians deal primarily in SEA heroin; they also deal in SWA heroin, although to a lesser extent. Before the recent increase in SA heroin availability, Nigerians controlled the heroin market in the Chicago area.

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Most federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies in Illinois cite violent crime associated with gang-related drug trafficking activity as the most serious criminal threat to the state. Gangs are the primary street-level distributors of heroin and other drugs in Illinois. Gang migration from Chicago to other urban areas and to suburban and rural areas has increased the availability of drugs, and consequently the associated violent criminal activity in these areas.

Most retail heroin sales in Chicago take place on the West Side where buyers are able to purchase heroin in gang-controlled areas without fear for their personal safety. Gangs such as the Gangster Disciples and Vice Lords have established alliances, putting profits ahead of rivalries. Gang members who sell heroin on street corners provide security to ensure that buyers return to their locations on a regular basis. Drug sale areas, particularly on the West Side of Chicago, are well defined, resulting in few turf wars. Hispanic sections on the North Side, where these gang arrangements do not exist, are more susceptible to drug turf wars associated with heroin and other drug sales.

Crime associated with heroin abusers is fueled in part by the large numbers who describe themselves as daily users. In a National Institute of Justice survey of heroin users in six major cities, 70 percent of Chicago heroin addicts surveyed described themselves as daily users. Chicago drug abusers had the highest reported rate of participation (24 percent) in illegal activities to pay for drugs.



Opium is not cultivated in Illinois nor is heroin produced. Heroin producers in Mexico are changing their product to meet the demand for higher purity heroin that has developed in Chicago's heroin market. A growing category of young, white, suburban heroin users in the Chicago area prefer higher purity white heroin over Mexican brown powdered or black tar heroin. DEA reports indicate that Colombian chemists have worked with Mexican DTOs to produce limited amounts of Mexican white heroin destined for Chicago.

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Chicago is a major destination as well as a transshipment point for various types of heroin. Responses to the NDIC National Drug Threat Survey 2000 demonstrate that states within the region cite Chicago as the distribution center for the heroin sold in their jurisdictions. 

Airports remain the prevalent seizure points for heroin smuggled into the United States. More than half of all heroin seized is confiscated from couriers on commercial aircraft--carrying the heroin internally, on their persons, or in their luggage. Colombian heroin trafficking groups that smuggle SA heroin into the Chicago area use couriers who ingest pellets of the drug. These couriers often travel on flights that connect through Miami.

Heroin Smugglers Use Infants

A suburban Chicago man was sentenced in August 2000 for recruiting at least nine young mothers to work as heroin and cocaine couriers traveling from Panama and Jamaica to Chicago. The drugs were concealed in cans of baby formula or in capsules ingested by the women. The women were instructed to travel with their infant children to minimize law enforcement scrutiny as they traveled.

Source: Chicago Tribune, 9 August 2000


Nigerian groups trafficking in SEA heroin are sophisticated; they are modifying transportation routes and methods of concealment. Nigerians typically have used air passenger couriers who ingested balloons filled with heroin, boarded flights originating in international locations such as Bangkok, Thailand, and entered the United States at airports in Chicago, New York, or other major cities. When they are used, Nigerian-employed couriers now arrive at international airports in midsize U.S. cities where there are fewer USCS officials. However, Nigerian trafficking groups appear to be shifting from employing air passenger couriers to using parcel packages for transportation. Seizure data also indicate that traffickers are increasingly using the mail and parcel package services to transport heroin into Chicago.

Mexican DTOs transport Mexican heroin to Chicago employing the same methods used to ship cocaine, methamphetamine, and marijuana. Mexican heroin is smuggled into the United States primarily through ports of entry along the Southwest Border via body carriers (1-2 kilograms) or private vehicles (2-5 kilograms). Colombian criminals are collaborating with Mexican criminals who act as transportation specialists and are employing Mexican body carriers to smuggle SA heroin into the United States across the Southwest Border. According to DEA, heroin seizures in Durango, Mexico, in 1999 reveal that the Herrera DTO is still involved in the heroin trade.

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Chicago serves as the primary distribution hub for the four principal types of heroin (SEA, SA, Mexican brown powdered and black tar, and SWA) in the Great Lakes Region. Heroin in the Central District of Illinois is distributed primarily from Chicago and secondarily from St. Louis. Reports from DEA offices in the Great Lakes Region, as well as from cities outside the region such as St. Louis and Atlanta, pinpoint Chicago as a major distribution center for heroin in their jurisdictions. Responses to the National Drug Threat Survey 2000 also demonstrate that states within the region point to Chicago as the distribution center for heroin transported into their jurisdictions.

Figure 3. Cities that reported Chicago
 as a heroin distribution center or destination.

Map of the U.S. showing locations of cities responding to the 2000 National Drug Threat Survey that listed Chicago as either a destination or distribution center for heroin. 

Nigerian heroin smugglers typically sell to Nigerian wholesalers, who in turn sell to high-level members of major African-American street gangs such as the Gangster Disciples and Vice Lords for retail distribution. Nigerian criminal groups are responsible for wholesale distribution of most of the SEA heroin shipped into Chicago. SEA heroin, which is 80-90 percent pure, is being sold between Nigerian traffickers for $80,000-$110,00 per kilogram. Wholesalers in Chicago usually sell heroin without cutting it to minimize their handling of the product and their exposure to law enforcement.

The relationship between Nigerians and African-American gangs is an important aspect of the heroin trade in Chicago. The children of Nigerian-born wholesalers are now acting as intermediaries with street gangs in order to bridge the generation gap. These second-generation offspring in their early to mid-20s are in charge of negotiating wholesale drug deals between their parents, family, or tribal members and the street gang placing the order. The business relationship between these Nigerian children and the gangs is further reinforced through social bonds such as Nigerian males dating female gang members. High-level gang members or affiliates are not purchasing heroin only from Nigerian heroin wholesalers in Chicago; they are now recruiting couriers and taking receipt of heroin in Southeast Asia for both wholesale and retail distribution in Chicago. In many cases, Nigerian criminal groups have assumed the role of heroin brokers for the Chicago street gangs to further insulate themselves from law enforcement.

Colombian DTOs are increasing the SA heroin supply in the Chicago area. SA heroin, like SEA heroin, has a high purity level. SA heroin is between 80 and 95 percent pure at the wholesale level and is cut to a purity of 30-60 percent at the street level. The introduction and increased availability of SA heroin caused Nigerian wholesalers to lower the price of SEA heroin in order to remain competitive. The price of white heroin has dropped from approximately $140,000 per kilogram to $60,000-$80,000 per kilogram over the past 5 years.

Mexican DTOs distribute Mexican brown powdered and, to a lesser extent, black tar heroin in Chicago. The Mexican DTOs are undercutting SA and SEA heroin prices in Chicago and other cities in an attempt to increase their market share with high purity (60-85 percent) Mexican heroin. Mexican black tar heroin purchased in southern California for $16,000 to $40,000 per kilogram can be resold in Chicago for several times that amount and still undercut the price of both SEA and SA heroin. Operation Tar Pit, a 2-year investigation of the Oscar Hernandez DTO based in Nayarit, Mexico, culminated in more than 200 arrests in June 2000. This DTO distributed about 36 kilograms of Mexican heroin per month--9 kilograms of black tar and 27 kilograms of brown powdered heroin--across the United States to Chicago and more than 20 other cities. Distribution was managed from a central cell located in Los Angeles. Couriers were primarily young females who body carried up to a kilogram of heroin aboard commercial airlines and buses. Parcel package services were also used to ship the heroin across the United States. This DTO, composed almost entirely of illegal aliens, is believed to be typical of Mexican heroin trafficking organizations: it was structured vertically, organized on family ties, and communicated in Spanish.

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Most retail heroin sales in Chicago take place on the West Side in a vast open-air drug market dominated by African-American street gangs such as the Gangster Disciples and the Vice Lords. These gangs are highly organized and control all aspects of the drug market. High-level gang members typically purchase uncut SEA heroin from Nigerian wholesalers in 100-gram to 1-kilogram quantities. Nigerian wholesalers use Nigerian taxicab drivers to deliver the heroin from the Broadway and Clark area on the North Side to the West Side. Gang members oversee the cutting, packaging, and retail distribution of the heroin. The heroin is cut with laxatives or baby powder to approximately 25 to 35 percent purity in a West Side apartment or house and then packaged in small squares of aluminum foil.

Heroin sales on the West Side are conducted openly on street corners. Single doses of approximately 100 milligrams are sold in unmarked aluminum foil squares or rectangles for $10 each. Occasionally the foil squares are placed in plastic bags in case they need to be secreted in the seller's mouth or other body orifice. At least half of the heroin sales on the West Side are made to white suburban users who drive into West Side neighborhoods to purchase $100 to $150 worth of heroin. They purchase heroin for personal use and may supply friends at cost or slightly above cost to support their own habit. Many of these sales occur on the West Side near off ramps of the Eisenhower Expressway and other major arteries to allow easy access for heroin users from the suburbs.

Security is an important aspect of the retail heroin trade. Heroin dealers want their customers to return and therefore protect their customers. Customers purchase at the same locations on a regular basis to ensure that they receive a quality product.

The typical retail heroin seller on the West Side of Chicago is a 15- to 20-year-old African-American male gang member. These low-level gang members can easily be replaced if arrested. Sellers are usually supplied with a "pack" of heroin consisting of 11 doses of heroin packaged in approximately 100-milligram quantities in aluminum foil squares. Sellers must return the proceeds from 10 sales and can pocket the money received from the other dose as a sales commission. Younger gang members, on bicycles or on foot, act as runners to supply sellers from a nearby house or apartment. The main supply of heroin and the collected money are usually kept in separate locations. Gangs employ lookouts to warn sellers of law enforcement presence. Lookouts work in shifts and are paid approximately $50 per day. Street corner heroin sellers usually deal only in heroin; other gang members sell crack or other drugs in the same block.

Heroin sales on the West Side occur at all hours of the day but peak during the morning and evening rush hours and during the lunch hour. A growing percentage of heroin abusers are white, middle-class employees and students who make their purchases during these hours. During peak periods, crowds of 100 or more gather to make heroin purchases. Gang members line up customers in rows of 4 and routinely search them for pagers, cell phones, and badges. Once gang members establish order and "clear" the customers, the heroin sales are made.

According to a 1996 National Institute of Justice survey of heroin users, retail heroin purchases in Chicago typically take place outdoors (91.8 percent) and in the drug abuser's own neighborhood (65.6 percent). Hispanic street gangs are primarily responsible for retail distribution of Mexican brown powdered and black tar heroin in the Hispanic communities on the North Side of Chicago. Sales typically take place in areas such as Humboldt Park where users typically are older addicts who prefer Mexican heroin. Transactions usually take place early in the morning as gang members drive through the park and make deliveries. Heroin can also be purchased in open-air drug markets on the South Side of Chicago, but sellers are more cautious about their customers. Heroin and other drugs are also sold at many bars throughout the Chicago area. Customers must have a contact in these establishments in order to make a purchase. Independent heroin dealers can be found in the various ethnic communities in the Chicago area. For example, Asian criminal groups sell heroin at the retail level within their communities. These dealers typically transact their business via pagers and cell phones, and delivery normally takes place in a public area.

End Notes

4. A heroin/morphine-related death is one in which the Medical Examiner has concluded that heroin/morphine use contributed to the death, but was not its sole cause.

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