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Drug Threat Overview

The distribution and abuse of cocaine (particularly crack), followed by heroin and marijuana, are the primary drug threats in the Chicago HIDTA region. According to the National Drug Intelligence Center (NDIC) National Drug Threat Survey (NDTS) 2009,3 69 of the 137 federal, state, and local law enforcement respondents in the Chicago area identify cocaine as the drug that poses the greatest threat to their jurisdictions, 32 respondents identify heroin, and 34 respondents identify marijuana. Large quantities of these drugs are transported to the area by Mexican DTOs and criminal groups, principally from locations along the Southwest Border. In 2008, Chicago HIDTA initiatives reported the seizure of 2,479 kilograms of cocaine, 122 kilograms of heroin, and 10,275 kilograms of marijuana. The HIDTA region has one of the largest illicit drug user populations in the United States. According to the Illinois Department of Human Services Division of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse (DASA), the Chicago HIDTA region accounted for 55.3 percent of all treatment provider services rendered in Illinois in 2007 (the latest year for which such data are available). Mexican DTOs and criminal groups dominate the wholesale transportation and distribution of cocaine, heroin, and marijuana; they typically obtain these drugs directly from DTOs operating in Mexico and provide them to street gang leaders in the region for retail-level distribution. Street gangs are the primary retail distributors of illicit drugs. These gangs regularly engage in violent criminal activities to protect their drug supplies, distribution territories, and illicit drug proceeds.

Cocaine trafficking and abuse in the Chicago HIDTA region are widespread; however, decreases in cocaine availability at the wholesale level were reported by law enforcement officials during the second half of 2008, as indicated by increased wholesale cocaine prices and decreased cocaine purity levels. Wholesale prices for cocaine in Chicago increased from December 2007 ($17,000 to $25,000 per kilogram) to December 2008 ($25,000 to $31,000 per kilogram), most likely indicating decreased availability. In addition, cocaine purity levels in the region declined in the second half of 2008, possibly indicating increased cutting of cocaine by traffickers to stretch supplies or increase profits. For example, law enforcement officials reported increased incidents of "re-rocking" facilities located in the HIDTA region. Re-rocking is a process of diluting kilograms of powder cocaine and reforming the cocaine into kilogram bricks with a hydraulic press, making the cocaine appear authentic and uncut.

Heroin supplied by Colombian, Mexican, Nigerian, and other West African traffickers is widely available and abused in the Chicago HIDTA region. Most of the heroin available in the HIDTA region is South American (SA). Colombian DTOs that produce SA heroin increasingly employ Mexican DTOs to transport multikilogram quantities of the drug through Mexico to the HIDTA region. Mexican brown powder heroin and black tar heroin are also available in Chicago, particularly in Hispanic communities. Nigerian and other West African traffickers smuggle multiounce quantities of Southwest Asian (SWA) heroin and, to a much lesser extent, Southeast Asian (SEA) heroin to Chicago on commercial aircraft through various concealment methods and through package delivery services. Street gangs are the principal retail heroin distributors in the region. Law enforcement officials report that a growing number of young heroin abusers travel from suburban areas and neighboring states to the region to purchase heroin, further contributing to the heroin distribution problem. According to DASA, the number of annual heroin treatment services rendered in the Chicago HIDTA region fluctuated between 2003 and 2007 (the latest year for which such data are available) but increased 16.9 percent (from 28,369 to 33,169) overall. In fact, the increase in heroin treatment provider services in the region outpaced that for any other substance of abuse. (See Figure 2.)

Figure 2. Treatment Provider Services in the Chicago HIDTA Region, by Substance, 2003-2007

Chart showing the number of treatment provider services in the Chicago HIDTA region, by substance, from 2003 to 2007.

Source: Illinois Department of Human Services, Division of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse.

Commercial-grade Mexican marijuana is widely available and abused in the Chicago HIDTA region, and the availability of and demand for high-potency marijuana are increasing. Mexican DTOs typically transport commercial-grade marijuana to the region from the Southwest Border, often in multiton quantities, using tractor-trailers. Although most of the marijuana distributed in the HIDTA region is commercial-grade, law enforcement reporting indicates that the demand for, and the distribution and abuse of, high-potency marijuana are increasing. High-potency marijuana is transported by Mexican, Caucasian, and Asian (primarily Chinese and Vietnamese) traffickers to the region from California and Washington. Asian, Albanian, and Caucasian traffickers increasingly transport significant quantities of the drug to the region from Canada. Law enforcement officials also report that increased local cultivation of high-potency cannabis in the region is contributing to rising availability of high-potency marijuana. Indoor cannabis cultivation, primarily among local independent drug traffickers growing a small number of cannabis plants, is more prevalent than it had been in previous years.

Methamphetamine distribution and abuse occur at low levels in the area; however, wholesale quantities of ice methamphetamine transit the Chicago HIDTA region en route to other markets. Mexican DTOs transport wholesale quantities of ice methamphetamine to the region and break them down for further distribution to drug markets in the Midwest. Law enforcement reporting indicates that methamphetamine distribution and abuse are limited to some Asian abusers and members of gay communities on the North Side of Chicago.

The availability and abuse of MDMA, controlled prescription drugs (CPDs), and other dangerous drugs (ODDs) vary throughout the region. The availability and abuse of MDMA in the HIDTA region are increasing. Asian, Albanian, and Caucasian traffickers transport the drug into the region from Canada. Law enforcement reporting indicates that MDMA is available throughout the region and typically is abused by young Eastern Europeans; however, abuse among individuals in African American and Hispanic communities is expanding, quite likely the result of increased MDMA distribution by African American and Hispanic street gangs. Additionally, law enforcement officials report increased seizures of MDMA tablets adulterated with BZP (N-benzylpiperazine, a controlled prescription stimulant). According to the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA), Canada-based DTOs are increasingly producing adulterated MDMA tablets, and in some instances, tablets marketed as MDMA contain little, if any MDMA. CPDs and ODDs such as PCP (phencyclidine), LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide), GHB (gamma-hydroxybutyrate), khat, and ketamine are available and abused in the region, but to a much lesser extent.

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Drug Trafficking Organizations

Drug Trafficking Organizations, Criminal Groups, and Gangs

Drug trafficking organizations are complex organizations with highly defined command-and-control structures that produce, transport, and/or distribute large quantities of one or more illicit drugs.

Criminal groups operating in the United States are numerous and range from small to moderately sized, loosely knit groups that distribute one or more drugs at the retail level and midlevel.

Gangs are defined by the National Alliance of Gang Investigators' Associations as groups or associations of three or more persons with a common identifying sign, symbol, or name, the members of which individually or collectively engage in criminal activity that creates an atmosphere of fear and intimidation.

Mexican DTOs pose the most significant organizational threat to the Chicago HIDTA region; they are the dominant transporters and wholesale distributors of most cocaine, heroin, and marijuana available in the area. These highly organized and compartmentalized drug trafficking groups often have connections to large DTOs in Mexico, from which they receive their drug supplies. They often use familial connections within the large local Mexican population to facilitate and conceal their drug operations. Mexican DTOs operating in Chicago also have drug distribution relationships with high-ranking local street gang members, supplying them with drugs for retail distribution. Mexican DTOs operating in Chicago generally store large quantities of cocaine and marijuana and smaller quantities of heroin and ice methamphetamine in local stash houses for later transportation to other drug markets in the Midwest and the eastern United States.

Alleged Members of Juárez Cartel Arrested in Chicago Drug Trafficking Investigation

In September 2008, 11 alleged members of the Juárez Cartel were charged in a federal complaint in the Northern District of Illinois, the result of a 10-month investigation into cocaine and marijuana distribution in the Chicago area. According to law enforcement reporting, the DTO smuggled wholesale quantities of cocaine and marijuana from Mexico to Chicago through the Southwest Border. During the investigation three members of the organization were found bound, gagged, and shot to death in a drug stash house in Chicago.

Source: Drug Enforcement Administration; U.S. Attorney, Northern District of Illinois.

Other drug trafficking groups also distribute wholesale quantities of illicit drugs in the Chicago HIDTA region. Colombian DTOs distribute cocaine and SA heroin in Chicago; they increasingly contract with Mexican traffickers to smuggle these drugs to the region on their behalf. Asian, Albanian, and Caucasian traffickers transport and distribute wholesale quantities of high-potency Canadian marijuana and MDMA. Nigerian and other West African traffickers are the primary transporters and distributors of SWA and SEA heroin; they smuggle multiounce quantities of heroin through package delivery services and couriers on commercial airlines.

The Chicago HIDTA region has a high concentration of nationally affiliated African American and Hispanic street gangs such as Gangster Disciples, Vice Lords, and Latin Kings, which maintain unrivaled control over retail drug distribution in the region. According to the Chicago Police Department Gang Investigations Section, approximately 75 street gangs are active in Chicago, with an estimated membership of 100,000. Some street gangs, primarily Hispanic gangs such as Latin Kings, are supplied with wholesale quantities of illicit drugs by Mexican DTOs. Gangs with direct contacts to wholesale sources of supply often operate as midlevel distributors to other street gangs in the region.

Street gang drug distribution operations are concentrated in Chicago; however, many suburban law enforcement agencies in the region report an increasing presence of Chicago gang members in their jurisdictions, many of whom distribute drugs. Officials attribute the movement of gang members from Chicago to suburban areas to several factors--the breakdown of traditional hierarchical gang structures resulting from law enforcement targeting of gang leaders, the razing of some large Chicago public housing projects, an abundance of wholesale illicit drug suppliers, and the expectation of high profits from new suburban drug operations. Street gang members who have relocated their drug distribution activities to suburban areas run operations that vary from the highly structured and cohesive organizations typically found in Chicago to loosely structured groups that operate independently. These gang members often maintain their gang associations but no longer answer to gang leaders from Chicago or share profits from drug distribution with them.


3. National Drug Threat Survey (NDTS) data for 2009 cited in this report are as of February 12, 2009. NDTS data cited are raw, unweighted responses from federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies solicited through either the National Drug Intelligence Center (NDIC) or the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) program. Data cited may include responses from agencies that are part of the NDTS 2009 national sample and/or agencies that are part of HIDTA solicitation lists.

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