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This is an NDIC product. National Drug Intelligence Center 
California Northern and Eastern Districts Drug Threat Assessment
January 2001


Heroin is the second most serious drug threat in Northern California. Black tar heroin from Mexico is plentiful in Northern California, and prices remain low. With few exceptions, tightly knit Mexican groups control the transportation and distribution of heroin.


CADDS data for FY1998 and FY1999 indicate admission totals for heroin abuse rose from 32,617 to 33,164 in Northern California counties.

Emergency department (DAWN) heroin/morphine mentions for San Francisco rose to 3,555 in 1994. By 1998, ED mentions had fallen to 2,386, below 1992 levels.

In Sacramento, according to 1999 ADAM data, only 4 percent of male and 5 percent of female arrestees tested positive for opiates of any kind. In San Jose, the percentages were 4 and 13 percent respectively.

Opium use is limited. It is reportedly increasing in the Central Valley region, although such use is largely confined to the Laotian community.

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Mexican DTOs are firmly entrenched and supply the majority of users. Every District and Resident Office in the DEA San Francisco Field Division reports that black tar heroin is dominant and is easily obtainable and plentiful. Purity ranges from 20 to 60 percent. Prices range from $15,000 to $80,000 per kilogram (see Table 2). The total amount of heroin seized fell from 1995 to 1997, before notably increasing in 1998. In 1999, seizure amounts again fell to about the same levels as 1996 (see Chart 4).

Table 2. Heroin Price and Purity

DEA Offices Price Range (dollars/kg) Price Range (dollars/oz) Purity Range (percent)
San Francisco 18,000 to 80,000      20 to 60
Sacramento   600  to  1,800   6      80
Bakersfield      800       1,500  20      22  
Fresno 20,000    48,000        25      50   
Oakland      500         600    22      25    
San Jose

15,000     17,500

     17      41  

Source: Drug Enforcement Administration, San Francisco Field Division, Trends in the Traffic for the 1st Quarter FY2000: October-December 1999.


Chart 4. Heroin Seizures, California, 1995-1999

Chart showing heroin seizure amounts in kilograms in Northern California for years 1995 through 1999.

Source: U.S. Department of Justice, Drug Enforcement Administration, El Paso Intelligence Center, Operation Pipeline, Seizure Statistics, 1995-1999, updated 23 February 2000.

Very little heroin from Southeast and Southwest Asia is used in Northern California; most is transshipped to markets in the eastern United States and Canada.

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Violent crime and property crimes are attributed to street gangs distributing heroin. These street gangs are involved in crimes such as assault, auto theft, bank robbery, carjacking, drive-by shooting, homicide, assault on law enforcement officials, weapons distribution, and home invasion in furtherance of their gang objectives and to protect their gang turf. Arrests for heroin-related offenses numbered 7,214 in San Francisco County in 1998, a 10 percent increase over 1997 and the highest number in 6 years. However, few agencies report violence associated with heroin use, in contrast to methamphetamine use. In San Francisco, burglaries ascribed to heroin users decreased by 39 percent from 1993 to 1998 (11,164 to 6,831). There were 17 percent fewer burglaries in the first 10 months of 1999 than in the same period of 1998.

The Northern Structure (also known as Nuestra Raza) is affiliated with the Nuestra Familia prison-based gang. According to the Sacramento County Sheriff's Office, responding to the NDIC National Gang Survey, members affiliated with Nuestra Familia and the Northern Structure sell heroin, marijuana, and methamphetamine locally and outside California. Some members specialize in armed robberies. One gang member was suspected of masterminding a series of bank robberies in San Jose in which handguns--some with laser sights--and sawed-off shotguns were used. Police in Seaside apprehended other Northern Structure members who were using portable radios and police scanners and apparently planning a drive-by shooting in retaliation for an assault on one of their leaders. Officers believe their plan was to use one car to lure officers from their normal patrol area, a second car to notify other members of the location of patrol units, and a third car to commit the drive-by shooting. In April 1997, California authorities reported 597 members and 144 associates of Northern Structure incarcerated in the California Department of Corrections.

In West Oakland, the Black Guerrilla Family, a prison-based gang, distributes heroin and commits violent crimes such as contract murders and robberies. The Black Guerrilla Family evolved from the 1970s radical prison movement in California, and is considered extremely violent. Upper-level African-American traffickers supply the Black Guerrilla Family dealers in West Oakland. These upper-level traffickers buy heroin from Hispanic gangs in southern California.



Opium is not cultivated in Northern California nor is heroin produced. In rare cases, ethnic Asians grow small plots of opium poppies in their backyard gardens for personal use.

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Los Angeles is a collection point and distribution hub for black tar heroin originating from Mexico--the primary type encountered in Northern California. Some groups transport heroin from the border directly to cities in Northern California. From there, groups transport the heroin to secondary hubs in the Central Valley. A significant portion of this heroin is destined for distribution in San Francisco. The South Bay Area is also an important secondary hub, specifically San Jose, Redwood City, and East Palo Alto.

According to Federal-wide Drug Seizure System (FDSS) data, heroin is transported predominantly on Interstate 5 and U.S. Highways 152, 101, and 128. In 1999, 8.7 kilograms of heroin were seized on Northern California highways. Most of the heroin seized during stops was being transported to destinations within the state. Many of the Mexican DTOs transporting methamphetamine also move heroin and cocaine along the same interstate routes.

Established destinations outside California include Oregon, Washington, and other western states. Recent arrests indicate that black tar heroin is occasionally available in cities in the eastern United States. A group based in Nayarit, Mexico, smuggled at least 80 pounds of heroin a month by private vehicle across the border in Arizona and California, with Los Angeles as the major hub. From there, the group transported and distributed the heroin in cities such as Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Atlanta. The group often used individuals it believed would not arouse law enforcement suspicions--young females or men in their sixties. The heroin, typically strapped to the bodies of the couriers, was handed off to other members of the group upon arrival in the destination city. The group also used parcel delivery firms and the mail to transport heroin.

Asian DTOs have smuggled heroin concealed in containerized cargo shipments from Southeast and Southwest Asia into North America. Southeast Asian DTOs consist primarily of ethnic Chinese; others include Cambodian, Laotian, Thai, and Vietnamese. Southwest Asian DTOs include Afghan, Indian, and Pakistani criminals. Afghan groups use express mail services to transport heroin produced in Southwest Asia into California for onward transit as well as local distribution. While they prefer to operate with groups of the same ethnic origin, Asian DTOs will work with Europeans, West Africans, and other Southwest Asians. These organizations remain highly cohesive and difficult to penetrate because of their strong ethnic, family, and tribal ties.

Opium from Laos and Thailand continues to be seized in Northern California. From January 1998 to July 1999, a total of 2,151 pounds of opium was seized in or bound for Northern California. During a 10-day period between June and July 1999, the U.S. Customs Service seized over 800 pounds of opium at its Oakland mail facility. Most of the opium was seized from parcels originating in Laos or Thailand and ultimately destined for Northern California and the Central Valley. According to U.S. Customs, opium shipped by mail to the San Francisco area from Laos and Thailand is usually destined for Laotian communities in the Central Valley region of California. Laotian gangs are involved in transporting opium to San Francisco, and to other Laotian communities located in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Hispanic gangs have been smuggling brown powdered heroin from Mexico into the San Francisco area for distribution and personal use. The drug is smuggled across the border in vehicles or buses to major cities for transshipment to destinations in Northern California and other western states.

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Mexican DTOs remain the key wholesale distributors of heroin in Northern California, according to federal, state, and local law enforcement reporting. However, Asian criminal groups have attempted to strengthen their position as major wholesale distributors outside California.

An alleged crime boss from San Francisco's Chinatown who federal authorities say conspired to turn a far-flung network of secret societies into a criminal empire pleaded innocent to racketeering charges on May 30, 2000. Peter Chong, 58, appeared in court after losing a 2-year battle against extradition from Hong Kong. Chong was the leader of the Hong Kong- and San Francisco-based Wo Hop To triad, according to an indictment returned in 1995. Prosecutors say Chong and other triad leaders formed an overarching group known as Tien Ha Wui, or The Whole Earth Association, with the goal of unifying "all Asian organized crime groups in the United States under the leadership of Peter Chong." The Tien Ha Wui was to coordinate distribution of heroin and cocaine, loansharking, gambling, and firearms trafficking, according to the indictment. Thirty-one defendants connected to the case have been convicted and sentenced, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.

Associated Press, 30 May 2000.


Hispanic street gangs control retail heroin distribution throughout Northern California. African-American street gangs and, to a lesser extent, the Hells Angels outlaw motorcycle gang also distribute heroin at the retail level. In San Francisco, retail heroin sales occur on street corners. Distributors sometimes package the dosage units in balloons and conceal them in their mouths until just before the actual sale. Hand-to-hand sales are common. In Fresno, local authorities report that heroin is sold in houses. Many of the walk-up buyers are local workers on lunch breaks. The users buy their fix, shoot up in the house, and return to work. Street enforcement operations have forced sellers to relocate indoors. There is little gang involvement with heroin sales in Fresno. Most sales involve independent distributors who purchase the drug from Mexican wholesale groups. In Modesto, heroin is sold in houses, from cars, or on street corners. The distributors package the Mexican black tar heroin that sells for $20 for 1/5 gram in cellophane or tin foil. Independent operators sell heroin in Modesto, but organized gangs do not. Mexican black tar heroin is the only heroin available in San Jose. Abusers who cannot obtain heroin use clonazepam to "take the edge off" until they can obtain more heroin. In San Mateo County, Hispanic gangs sell heroin on the street. In Sonoma County, dosage-unit buys of black tar heroin are made from stash houses. Users frequent houses where they purchase prepackaged drugs. The average street-level dealer for black tar heroin and methamphetamine is a Mexican national male.

Police arrested 19 people in San Francisco after videotaping many of them purchasing drugs. The Western Addition neighborhood had been plagued by a drug war that had killed at least six people before the September 1999 raids. In addition to the arrests, the raids netted 3 handguns, 2 pounds of black tar heroin, and $5,000 in cash.

San Francisco Chronicle, 16 September 1999.


The California Department of Justice estimates that there are 25,000 Asian street gang members in California, primarily Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Laotian, including some Hmong. Many gangs now include their telephone area code as part of their name, such as the 209 Lao Crips in Stockton, and the 916 Lao Crips in Sacramento. Asian street-level gangs reportedly distribute very little heroin in San Francisco. There are no known Asian prison gangs.


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