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Louisiana Drug Threat Assessment
Louisiana is the twenty-second largest state with a population of 4.5 million people. The state's population has remained stable over the last decade. More than two-thirds of the population is concentrated in eight metropolitan areas--New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Shreveport/Bossier City, Lafayette, Alexandria, Monroe, Lake Charles, and Houma/Thibodaux. Louisiana is one of the most culturally, economically, and ecologically diverse states in the nation. French is spoken in many parishes (Louisiana's name for counties), especially in the southwest portion of the state. Louisiana's diverse economy includes a strong agricultural sector, large petroleum and natural gas reserves, a thriving fishing industry, expanding tourism, and a strategic location at the mouth of the Mississippi River, gateway to America's vast inland waterway system. The state's landscape varies dramatically from its famous remote, marshy bayous in the south, to lush pine forests in the north.
New Orleans International Airport receives direct flights from San Salvador, El Salvador, and San Pedro Sula, Honduras. Both San Salvador and San Pedro Sula serve as regional hubs, connecting passengers from all over Central and South America, including known drug source countries such as Columbia and Venezuela, to New Orleans.
The Port of New Orleans is a transportation hub and distribution center for licit and illicit commodities. It is the second busiest container port on the Gulf Coast and the fourth busiest port in the United States. Smuggling occurs not only within containerized cargo, but also in shipments of bulk cargo such as iron ore and produce. Much of the trade is with drug source and transit nations in Latin America and the Caribbean. Drug traffickers use skilled welders in poor nations such as Haiti to modify cargo vessels so drugs can be stored within the structure of the ship. U.S. Customs Service (USCS) officials indicate that smuggling by crew members aboard cargo ships is also a significant problem. Louisiana, with 397 miles of Gulf Coastline, includes the Mississippi delta, gateway to the vast Mississippi River system.
The Port of New Orleans is a popular embarkation point and destination on the Caribbean cruise ship circuit providing an opportunity for American and foreign passengers to smuggle drugs. Some crew members on cruise ships that service ports in drug transit countries such as Jamaica and Mexico smuggle multikilogram shipments of cocaine. The USCS reports that drug distribution groups in the United States recruit couriers who work with drug traffickers and crew members to bring drugs into the United States.
The Gulf of Mexico is home to over 4,000 offshore natural gas drilling platforms that are sometimes used as rendezvous or dropoff points for smugglers. The natural gas industry is the impetus for between 5,000 and 9,000 helicopter flights a day shuttling employees and equipment between platforms and the mainland, providing a degree of anonymity to smugglers operating in the Gulf.
Traffickers exploit the many opportunities the Gulf of Mexico provides and continue to develop innovative ways to smuggle drugs via the Gulf Coast. Although seizure data does not confirm widespread air and maritime drug smuggling into Louisiana's Gulf Coast region, United States Coast Guard (USCG) and USCS intelligence officials, as well as many local law enforcement agencies in communities along the Gulf Coast, are confident it is occurring. The maritime and air drug smuggling threat in the Gulf of Mexico is underscored by the fact that the Louisiana Gulf Coast is closer to the port of Cartagena, Colombia, than it is to Boston, Massachusetts.
Drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) use modern communication and navigation devices for countersurveillance and counterintelligence capabilities. Cellular telephones and global positioning systems (GPS) have revolutionized the way in which air and maritime smugglers conduct their activities, enabling them to make precision rendezvous. In the past, smugglers had to use high frequency (HF) and very high frequency (VHF) radios to communicate with their offloading or receiving teams and to use other means such as automobile headlights and fires to help pilots or captains pinpoint ground parties, which made them vulnerable to detection. DTO members study law enforcement operational patterns and routines such as USCG and USCS patrol schedules.
Louisiana's portions of interstate highways 10, 20, and 55 are important cogs in an elaborate interstate system being exploited by drug distributors moving drugs north from the Southwest Border area while at the same time sending the cash profits south. Houston and Dallas, both major drug distribution hubs, lie just to the west of Louisiana on highways 10 and 20, respectively. Law enforcement personnel in Louisiana point overwhelmingly to Houston and Dallas as the main source of cocaine in their areas. Louisiana's proximity to Texas and the Southwest Border provides distributors ready access via Louisiana's highways to lucrative markets in the southern and northeastern United States. To a lesser degree, Interstate 55, which originates in New Orleans and passes through St. Louis before ending in Chicago, allows distributors to move drugs to midwestern markets. Interstate highways 10 and 20 also connect Louisiana to major drug distribution hubs in Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix, Miami, and Atlanta. Table 1 shows the distance between several Louisiana cities and some significant drug distribution cities
Table 1. Estimated Mileage Between Major Louisiana Cities and Selected Drug Distribution Cities
Source: Mapquest <www.Mapquest.com>
Louisiana's popularity as a tourist, convention, and party destination contributes to drug abuse and distribution. Large numbers of recreation seekers travel to and from New Orleans providing relative anonymity to drug distributors as well as providing a lucrative market for drugs. According to Louisiana's Department of Culture, Recreation, and Tourism, in 2000 visitation to the state was at an all-time high and is continuing to increase. In 2000 more than six million people attended Mardi Gras festivities, pumping a record $1.06 billion into the local economy. Louisiana's burgeoning casino gaming industry contributes to drug abuse, distribution, and money laundering activities in the state. The 1999 Gambling Impact and Behavior Study reported that gambling behavior was significantly associated with multiple drug and alcohol use. The study indicated pathological gamblers were nine times more likely than nongamblers to have been alcohol or drug dependent in their lifetime. The casinos have provided a significant number of full-time, entry-level jobs for people living in poor, rural areas. Law enforcement officials in these areas indicate that people have more discretionary income and that some are spending it on illegal drugs. Currently 19 casinos are located throughout the state and Shreveport is the third most visited gaming destination, behind Las Vegas and Atlantic City. According to law enforcement authorities, drug distributors are using buses that shuttle customers from Dallas and Houston to casinos in Lake Charles, Shreveport, and other cities as a means of transporting drugs. Drug distributors frequently use casinos to launder money by purchasing large quantities of chips in small batches, later exchanging them for cash and a receipt so they appear to be winnings.
Street gangs play a prominent role in drug distribution in Louisiana: 4,800 documented individuals were affiliated with 155 gangs identified in 24 parishes throughout the state as of 1999. Of the 155 active gangs, 125 have members known to sell drugs and the remaining 30 have members suspected of involvement in drug sales. Street gangs primarily distribute marijuana and crack, although heroin distribution by street gangs has increased dramatically in New Orleans.
Nationally affiliated street gangs are involved in drug transportation and distribution throughout Louisiana. Both the Crips and Bloods are active in Shreveport and have strong family ties to gang members in Los Angeles through whom they purchase drugs, primarily powdered cocaine and marijuana. These ties are so strong that in some Los Angeles neighborhoods, Shreveport is referred to as "little Compton." Louisiana is experiencing the influx of two midwestern gangs, the Gangster Disciples and the Latin Kings. The Gangster Disciples is locating in the northern and central parts of the state including Monroe, Shreveport/Bossier City, Alexandria, Lafayette, and Baton Rouge. The Latin Kings, also with strong connections to gang members on the East Coast, is locating primarily in the central and southern half of the state, in Baton Rouge, Lake Charles, and New Orleans.
Outlaw motorcycle gangs (OMGs) distribute methamphetamine and, to a lesser extent, cocaine and marijuana in Louisiana. They rely on Mexican DTOs as their primary source of supply, although OMGs continue to operate methamphetamine laboratories. They also facilitate their illegal drug activity by forming criminal alliances with independent methamphetamine cookers, street gangs, and organized crime groups. The Bandidos, the nation's second largest OMG, is headquartered in Texas and is very active in Louisiana. It has been engaged in a push to recruit new members during 2000, so its numbers have undoubtedly increased. Also active in Louisiana are the Galloping Goose, Road Barons, and the Sons of Silence.
Law enforcement reports an increase in Asian gang activity in Louisiana, especially in the southern part of the state. Asian gangs have used the growing Asian population to cover their illegal activities, the most profitable of which is drug distribution. Asian gangs are also proficient money launderers and are known to operate cell phone and computer sales scams. Leading gangs include the Viet-Pride and the Asian-Pride. Law enforcement authorities believe that Vietnamese and Laotian drug gangs are now transacting directly with Colombian and Mexican drug suppliers, indicating the potential for an increase in wholesale drug distribution activity. Asian gangs tend to be very transient, so it is difficult for law enforcement to determine exactly how many are active at any given time. The southern part of the state is home to a large Asian population, primarily Vietnamese, many of whom work in the fishing industry.
Most New Orleans street gangs are not affiliated with national gangs and have fought any attempts by national gangs to organize in the city. Law enforcement agencies identify them by housing projects or neighborhoods rather than any adopted name or affiliation to a national organization. They refer to themselves as " posses" or "crews" and are well organized, but do not have a distinct hierarchy. These gangs are responsible for most drug-related and violent crimes in the city.
Louisiana has some of the highest violent crime rates in the nation despite recent reductions in almost every category in every major city. Between 1994 and 1999 the murder rate declined 63 percent in New Orleans. Despite the decrease, in 1999 Louisiana still had the highest murder rate in the nation with a rate of 10.7 murders per 100,000 residents while New Orleans had a rate of 34 per 100,000 residents. During the first 6 months of 2000, 120 murders were committed in New Orleans, compared with 80 in the same period the year before. The New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) estimates that as many as 75 percent of homicides are drug-related and can be attributed to street gangs involved in drug distribution. Many law enforcement personnel attribute the increase in homicides to turf wars among heroin distributors. Chart 1 illustrates both the total number of drug crimes and the total number of violent crimes committed in Louisiana between 1995 and 1999.
Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the nation, and many of the inmates are incarcerated for drug-related offenses. According to data from the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections, the total prison population as of October 2000 was 35,998; a rate of 736 per 100,000. Over 30 percent of prisoners are incarcerated for drug-related crimes, second only to those imprisoned for violent crimes (38 percent); which often have a root cause in drug abuse or distribution.
Health care statistics and the number of deaths attributed to drug abuse provide mixed signals as to the state of the drug problem in Louisiana. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the number of Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) emergency department (ED) mentions in New Orleans decreased by 24 percent from 1995 to 1999. (See Table 2.) Medical examiners report the number of deaths attributed to drugs increased 10 percent from 1997 to 1998. Information provided by the 11 parishes participating in the Louisiana State Epidemiology Work Group (SEWG) shows that statewide, cocaine and marijuana are the two illicit drugs most frequently related to substance abuse treatment center admissions. SEWG also reports that heroin abuse is rising in New Orleans and Jefferson Parish and that methamphetamine abuse increased in northern parishes during the last 2 years.
Table 2. Emergency
Department and Medical Examiner Drug Mentions
Source: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Drug Abuse Warning Network, Year End Emergency Department Data 1999; Annual Medical Examiner Data 1998.
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