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California - Southern District Drug Threat Assessment
December 2000


Heroin continues to be smuggled into the district, mostly through Southern California POEs. Virtually all the heroin that is available is of Mexican origin, predominantly black tar, but also brown powder. However, South American heroin has also been seized in the district. Mexican DTOs are the major sources of the heroin smuggled across the California-Mexico border. Heroin is also transshipped through the region to other destinations.

Once heroin is smuggled into the region, wholesale and retail distribution is handled by a variety of groups, including street gangs and independent dealers, some Caucasian but predominantly Hispanic. In 1999, various law enforcement agencies in San Diego and Imperial Counties conducted 595 narcotic enforcement actions involving heroin. This represented 8 percent of the total; however, this figure may be understated as there were 503 polydrug actions in which heroin most likely was involved.

To varying degrees, local law enforcement identifies heroin as an ongoing threat. The San Diego Sheriff's Department and the Chula Vista Police Department classify the heroin threat as moderate and stable. The San Diego Police Department classifies the heroin threat as moderate but increasing and reports a growing number of younger users. These sources also classify abuse as moderate; however, according to the California Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs, drug use indicators for FY1998-FY2000 show an increase in treatment admissions for heroin abuse over the 3-year period. However, information from the DEA San Diego Field Division indicates that availability may be high--black tar is available in multikilogram quantities. The DEA Imperial County Resident Office reports that it is encountering heroin in "traditionally methamphetamine/cocaine-related local impact investigations." It further reports that "significant amounts"--1/2- to 1-pound quantities--are now common in the county.

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According to a May 2000 open source report, the trend in San Diego and Imperial Counties toward younger heroin users is reflected at the national level. The average age for heroin users in the United States declined from 27.4 years in 1988 to 17.6 in 1997 and use among females increased dramatically. It is further reported that heroin use has moved to middle-class suburbs. The user population covers a broad spectrum from white-collar professionals in affluent suburbs to kids in small farm communities. The Imperial County Narcotics Task Force reports that heroin is the drug of choice among Mexican migrant workers.

California drug abuse indicators for the most recent reporting period show heroin use increasing, particularly in northern San Diego County. Between FY1998 and FY1999, drug treatment admissions for heroin increased in both San Diego and Imperial Counties. In San Diego County, admissions rose 7.9 percent from 4,663 to 5,035, and in Imperial County, admissions increased 11.2 percent from 232 to 258. Individuals from 18 to 55 years of age sought treatment for heroin abuse but most were in the 26- to 50-year-old group; they were predominantly male (over 65 percent) and white.

According to recent data prepared by the California Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs, the trend toward increased heroin use in Imperial County continued in FY2000. However, these same figures reflect a downward trend for heroin use in San Diego County.

A recent DEA San Diego report indicates that Imperial County may be experiencing the beginning of a heroin epidemic in the small cities of Winterhaven and Bard. Both cities are located in the southeast area of the county, near the California-Arizona border and Yuma, Arizona.

According to the Community Epidemiology Work Group (CEWG), the number of users injecting the drug is increasing. There is growing concern that the injection of heroin may be increasing among young users. Deadly results have occurred in California from the intravenous use of black tar heroin. In 1999, five addicts in San Francisco died from bacterial infections contracted after injecting the drug. The bacteria blamed for the death, Clostridium perfringens, thrives in black tar heroin and causes a flesh-eating infection called necrotising fasciitis. Health officials report that at least four people were treated in Northern California for "wound botulism," an infection which attacks the blood and central nervous system, causing paralysis and death. The deaths were traced to a contaminated batch of Mexican black tar heroin.

The most recent available DAWN Medical Examiner Data for the San Diego area show that heroin/morphine-related deaths increased from 137 in 1995 to 165 in 1996 but remained level at 165 through 1998. (See Chart 2.)

Chart 2. Heroin/Morphine-Related Deaths, San Diego, 1995-1998

Graph of total drug deaths and heroin/morphine-related deaths.

  Total Drug Deaths     Heroin/Morphine

Source: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Drug Abuse Warning Network, Annual Medical Examiner Data 1998.

According to a June 2000 news report, heroin-related deaths have occurred in Ireland and Scotland. In Ireland, officials reported that eight users died and seven have been hospitalized. Glasgow, Scotland, officials reported 16 deaths and 12 additional cases of a "mystery illness" linked to heroin use by injection. Black tar heroin is reportedly not available in Ireland or Scotland. However, authorities in Glasgow believe that users were taking a crudely produced form of heroin that was difficult to dissolve and using excessive levels of citric acid to break it down. Doctors believe that injecting such large amounts of citric acid into the tissue causes localized damage, which allows the bacteria to spread. All victims in Glasgow injected heroin directly into tissue and all had used citric acid to dissolve the drug. Pathology reports on the Glasgow victims indicated citric acid present at six times the normal level. Authorities in Ireland have not yet identified a link between the cases in the United States or Scotland. There also were 14 cases of the illness reported in London, England; seven of the victims died.

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Black tar and, to a lesser extent, brown powdered heroin from Mexico predominate in the western half of the United States. The DEA San Diego Field Division reports that black tar heroin currently is available in multikilogram quantities and that the purity level has remained relatively high. In September 2000, DEA reported purity levels of up to 70 percent and the price from $800 to $1,450 per ounce, down from the $1,000 to $3,000 reported for 1999. The DEA in Carlsbad reports that Mexican heroin is readily available in the area and sells for about $1,000 per ounce.

In 1999, a kilogram of 79 percent pure black tar heroin sold for $40,000 to $75,000 in Imperial County. A kilogram of 50 to 65 percent pure black tar heroin sold for $80,000 to $90,000 in San Diego County. NIN quotes the price of black tar heroin in Imperial County, as of March 2000, at $14,000 per pound; this equates to $30,800 per kilogram. The DEA in Imperial County reports that heroin is available in significant amounts--1/2- to 1-pound quantities. They further report that the drug sells for about $800 per ounce, slightly less than the reported average street price.

As reported by the El Paso Intelligence Center (EPIC), seizures of heroin in San Diego and Imperial Counties increased 36 percent from 1996 to 1999 (73.5 kg to 99.7 kg). The 1999 figures represent 41 percent of the total seized on the Southwest Border compared to 46 percent of the total seized in 1996. The amount of heroin seized continued to increase during the first six months of 2000. Heroin seizures reported for 1998 indicate that Mexican and, to a lesser extent, South American heroin are being smuggled into the California border region. (See Chart 3.)


Chart 3. Types of Heroin Seized at the California Border

Pie chart of types of heroin seized in California.


Mexican Black Tar   Mexican Brown Powder   South American   Unknown
Source: California Border Alliance Group, Narcotic Threat Assessment FY2001, 1 April 2000.

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Heroin use is not normally associated with violence; however, heroin abusers may commit crimes such as robbery and burglary to support their drug habits. Heroin trafficking, like the trafficking of other drugs, is accompanied by criminal activity. Criminal groups and individuals involved in the trafficking and distribution of heroin may use violence to protect drug shipments or to maintain control over distribution in a given area.

Street gangs, many of which are known to commit violent acts, are involved in the distribution of drugs in both San Diego and Imperial Counties. Local law enforcement estimates that street gangs distribute 20 to 50 percent of the drugs in their areas. Respondents to the NDIC Gang Survey 2000 identify a number of street gangs involved in the distribution of multiple drugs including heroin. These gangs are also involved in drive-by shooting, homicide, carjacking, and home invasion crimes, most of which are not classified as drug-related.

Another measure of the relationship between criminal behavior and drug use is the percentage of arrestees testing positive for drugs, in this case opiates. According to ADAM, opiate use among adult male arrestees increased slightly between 1995 and 1998. In 1995, 8 percent of male arrestees tested positive for opiate use while 9 percent tested positive in 1999, a one percent increase. Comparatively, the percentage of female arrestees testing positive for opiate use decreased from 12 percent in 1995 to 10.9 percent in 1999, a one percent decrease. Opiate use among male juvenile offenders (ages 9 through 18), decreased slightly during the same time frame, from 1 percent in 1995 to .4 percent in 1999. ADAM did not report any data for female juvenile offenders in 1995, however, for 1999 ADAM reports that 2.3 percent of female juveniles tested positive for opiates.



Mexico is the dominant source of heroin available in the western United States. In 1999, the U.S. Government estimated that drug traffickers in Mexico cultivated 2 percent of the world's opium poppy crop and produced an estimated 4.3 metric tons of heroin. Opium continues to be produced in western Mexico along the spine of the Sierra Madre, an area extending from the states of Sinaloa, Chihuahua, and Durango south to the states of Oaxaca and Guerrero. Seizure reporting indicates that significant quantities of heroin and opium gum originate in the state of Michoacan. In an important development, the government of Mexico reports that Mexican heroin traffickers are implementing new cultivation strategies to increase opium poppy yields. Poppy plants that used to produce 1 to 2 bulbs now produce 9 to 10 bulbs. Plants grown in Sinaloa, Chihuahua, and Durango can each produce 20 to 30 bulbs measuring 1 to 2 inches in diameter.

Historically, Mexican heroin traffickers have produced and marketed only black tar and brown powdered heroin, but the seizure of two heroin production laboratories in the last 2 years indicates that Mexican organizations may be working with Colombian chemists to produce white heroin. However, no recent information confirms the current production of Mexican white heroin.

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Mexican DTOs control the transportation and smuggling of heroin into and through Southern California. The biggest percentage is smuggled through the POEs: from Tijuana via San Ysidro, from Mexicali via Calexico, and through Otay Mesa and Tecate. As with other drugs smuggled into the United States from Mexico, heroin is moved through Mexico to the California-Mexico border, mostly overland. Mexico has several major highways (Highways 1, 2, and 5) that terminate at the border. On the California side, there are major routes (Interstates 5, 15, 215, and Highway 111) and secondary routes that radiate north from the border and interconnect with west-east routes (Interstates 8, 10, 40). Transporters use these highways to move heroin overland to stash houses and major population centers in California and other states. (See Overview Map and Map 1.)

Smugglers use various means to transport heroin: vehicles, commercial airlines, mailing services, and couriers. Illegal immigrants and migrant workers often serve as couriers, smuggling small amounts of heroin across the border. Females are used more often than males to move large quantities of heroin. In May 2000, USCS inspectors at San Ysidro arrested two women after 28 pounds of heroin and 64 pounds of cocaine were found in a hidden compartment of a personal vehicle. The street value of the drugs was estimated at $1.3 million. The authorities stated that it was unusual to find both heroin and cocaine in one shipment.

Other recent seizures at California POEs include 7.6 pounds of heroin seized from a pedestrian and two seizures, 22 pounds and 6 pounds, from personal vehicles. In the case of the pedestrian, the heroin was hidden inside the false wall of a hard-shell suitcase; in the vehicles, one shipment of heroin was hidden in a quarter panel and the other was hidden in a battery.



The wholesale distribution of heroin in Southern California is controlled by Mexico-based DTOs. These organizations smuggle heroin into the area, where the drug is distributed locally and transshipped to cities, particularly Los Angeles, and to areas across the United States. At the local level, heroin is distributed through middlemen to dealers such as gangs, loosely formed groups, and independents.



Mexican criminals, most of whom maintain a Mexicali or Tijuana base, are the principal wholesale distributors for heroin in Southern California. They rely on established smuggling and distribution networks to move heroin to market. Mexican or Mexican-American criminals with ties to the Mexican states of Durango, Michoacan, Nuevo Leon, Sinaloa, and Tamaulipas usually distribute black tar heroin. Two major Mexican DTOs dominate heroin smuggling across the U.S.-Mexico border, the Arellano-Felix Organization and the Miguel Angel Caro-Quintero Organization. The San Diego Sheriff's Department reported that Tijuana and Nayarit are the main source areas for heroin in San Diego County. It also reports that heroin is transshipped through San Diego County to Los Angeles and other cities.

In June 2000, DEA agents moved against a major heroin distribution group that extended from Nayarit, Mexico, to San Diego and cities across the United States including Albuquerque, Anchorage, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Honolulu, and Los Angeles. Operating out of Los Angeles, the group dispatched young girls and elderly men, traveling alone, carrying 1- to 2-pound packages of heroin to various destinations. The distribution group was successful at establishing customer bases in new cities. One of the methods used to market its heroin was to set up "shooting galleries" near methadone clinics to lure customers who were in methadone treatment programs. The group dealt in pound- to street-level quantities of 60 to 85 percent pure heroin, selling hundreds of thousands of doses per month.



As with the distribution of other drugs, major trafficking organizations usually supply heroin to middlemen. These middlemen normally work with known dealers who distribute the heroin at the street level. The street dealers include various drug distribution groups, Hispanic and Caucasian street gangs, and independents. Some of the San Diego gangs involved in the distribution of heroin include the Vistas Home Boys, Barrio Fallbrook Locos, and Barrio Encinitas, all Hispanic. In San Marcos, the Barrio San Marcos and South Los gangs distribute heroin and other drugs. On January 19, 2000, police arrested two men in Barrio Logan who were selling heroin and cocaine from their car. In April 2000, DEA agents in Imperial County seized 190 grams of black tar heroin in the business district of El Centro. The heroin was wrapped in clear plastic and black electrical tape. Heroin is frequently packaged in clear plastic, but the San Diego Police Department reports that street-level doses of heroin may be packaged in plastic that has been cut from grocery bags and then heat-sealed. Aluminum foil is another form of packaging used.


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