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Houston High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Drug Market Analysis
June 2007


Drug production in Houston is limited because of the ready availability of drugs from Mexico; however, powder cocaine is converted to crack, cannabis is cultivated, and methamphetamine is produced to varying degrees. Significant amounts of powder cocaine are converted into crack cocaine within the city for local and regional consumption. Crack cocaine is often converted in places such as crack houses, hotel rooms, and garages.

The ready availability of Mexican marijuana renders most domestic cultivation of cannabis unnecessary; however, outdoor and indoor grow operations have been seized by law enforcement officials in and around Houston. The mild climate in the Houston area as well as the rural areas surrounding the city makes the area conducive to outdoor cannabis cultivation; however, outdoor grow sites are rarely found. Indoor grow sites are not generally considered a major drug enforcement problem; however, in March 2006, a sophisticated indoor cannabis grow operated by two individuals of Vietnamese descent was found in a residential home in Montrose, a neighborhood near downtown Houston, that contained approximately 1,000 cannabis plants worth an estimated $4 million as well as hydroponic equipment, a watering system, fertilizer, and insecticide. Every room in the home was used for cultivation, indicating that the primary purpose of the residence was cannabis cultivation. Cultivation of high-potency marijuana can be very lucrative to producers because the drug is increasingly popular throughout the United States and can be sold at higher profits in most drug markets.

Methamphetamine production has considerably decreased over the past 3 years in Harris County. According to the El Paso Intelligence Center (EPIC) National Clandestine Laboratory Seizure System (NCLSS), the number of methamphetamine laboratories seized by law enforcement in Harris County decreased by 89 percent from 2004 to 2006. (See Table 2 in Drug Threat Overview section.) Since the enactment of precursor chemical control legislation in August 2005, methamphetamine production has decreased significantly; however, methamphetamine producers still attempt to circumvent this new law by using fraudulent identification to obtain pseudoephedrine through retailers, turning to new sources of supply for the precursor, or using alternative production methods.1 Additionally, the wide availability of Mexican ice methamphetamine in the HIDTA region makes production an unnecessary risk when the drug can easily be obtained from distributors in the area.

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Houston is a primary transshipment point used by Mexican DTOs to smuggle enormous amounts of drugs from Mexico, primarily cocaine and marijuana, through the Rio Grande Valley and from other areas of the Texas-Mexico border. Mexican DTOs use various transportation methods to smuggle drugs to Houston; however, overland transportation, primarily using private and commercial vehicles on interstates and highways, is predominant. (See Figure 2.) DTOs typically use U.S. Highway 59 to transport illicit drugs from the Southwest Border to Houston. US 59 extends directly from the Laredo port of entry (POE) to Houston and also connects with US 281 and US 77, which provide routes of travel from the McAllen and Brownsville areas. Drug shipments also are transported into Houston on Interstate 10, which provides access into the city from El Paso through San Antonio. Additionally, the proposed Trans-Texas Corridor, or I-69, which will eventually expand from Mexico to Canada traversing the Houston area, will quite likely be used by Mexican DTOs, upon its completion, to smuggle drug shipments.

Figure 2. Houston HIDTA transportation infrastructure.

Map showing the Houston HIDTA transportation infrastructure.

Mexican DTOs also use couriers on buses and trains to transport illicit drugs to Houston. There are at least two Mexican-owned bus companies that operate daily routes from Mexico through Houston to destinations in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia. Couriers on these buses transport cocaine, marijuana, and methamphetamine for distribution in these states; they also transport drug proceeds back to Mexico. Additionally, several rail systems exist in the Houston area, including the Texas Mexican Railway, which is very likely used by Mexican DTOs to transport drugs from Mexico to Houston as well as from Houston to market destinations outside the HIDTA region.2

Various DTOs exploit air conveyances in Houston to transport illicit drugs to the HIDTA region; however, drug transportation through airports in Houston has decreased as a result of increased security at commercial air facilities since September 11, 2001. Law enforcement agencies occasionally seize drugs and currency from passengers on domestic and international flights and from freight arriving at the George Bush Intercontinental Airport and Hobby Airport. The large number of passenger and cargo activities at these airports provides camouflage to traffickers who smuggle illicit drugs through these airports. Over 51 million passengers and 367,000 metric tons of air cargo passed through these airports in 2006. Additionally, the first scheduled Asian cargo flight to Houston occurred in September 2006; this flight, which will fly round trip from Taipei, China, to Houston once a week, could potentially be used by traffickers to smuggle illicit drugs from Asia.

Maritime smuggling through the Port of Houston poses a viable threat to the HIDTA region that could increase in the long term. The Port of Houston facilities, through which more than 200 million tons of cargo moved in 2006, is ranked first in the United States in foreign waterborne tonnage, second in the United States in total tonnage, and tenth in the world in total tonnage. The Port of Houston opened the Bayport Container Terminal in February 2006, which is expected to triple the port's container handling capacity when fully developed, allowing it to handle 2.3 million TEUs (twenty-foot-equivalent lengths). By 2008 the Port of Houston will also open a cruise ship terminal with the capacity to accommodate as many as 1.7 million passengers. The increase in the number of containers processed through the port facilities and the addition of a large cruise ship terminal could enable DTOs to more easily smuggle illicit drug shipments using maritime methods.

End Notes

1. In August 2005, Texas passed precursor control legislation that required pharmacies that engage in over-the-counter (OTC) sales of tablet forms of products containing ephedrine, pseudoephedrine, or norpseudoephedrine to keep those products behind the pharmacy counter or in a locked case within 30 feet and in a direct line of sight from a pharmacy counter staffed by an employee of the pharmacy. The state law does not apply to liquid, liquid capsule, or liquid gel capsule forms of the products. Additionally, before completing the OTC sale of a product containing the above-mentioned precursors, a pharmacy must ask for photo identification and signature from the buyer and record the name of the person making the purchase, the date of purchase, and the item and number of grams purchased. Individuals may not purchase more than two packages or 6 grams of ephedrine, pseudoephedrine, norpseudoephedrine, or a combination of those substances at a time.
2. The Texas Mexican Railway is a 157-mile rail line between Laredo and Corpus Christi, Texas. This railway also provides service to Houston and Beaumont, Texas, through trackage rights--an arrangement between railroad companies that permits one company to operate over certain sections of track owned by another railroad company.

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