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NDIC seal linked to Home page. National Drug Intelligence Center
Colorado Drug Threat Assessment
May 2003


Heroin is available in the state's metropolitan and suburban areas and poses a considerable drug threat to Colorado. Mexican black tar heroin and brown powdered heroin are the most common types available. Most new heroin abusers in Colorado are young adults who smoke or snort the drug rather than inject it, mistakenly believing this practice to be safer and less likely to lead to addiction. Mexican DTOs transport heroin into the state and serve as the primary wholesale distributors. Transporters commonly use private and rental vehicles, couriers aboard commercial aircraft, and package delivery services to transport heroin from Mexico into the state. Mexican DTOs and criminal groups are the principal retail distributors of heroin in Colorado.



Heroin abuse poses a growing threat to Colorado. The number of heroin abusers who smoke the drug--mostly younger users who are new to heroin abuse--has increased, and the number of heroin abusers who inject the drug has decreased. Many new abusers mistakenly believe that smoking or snorting heroin protects them from the addictive and lethal properties of the drug. Also, snorting or smoking the drug allows them to avoid the stigma associated with intravenous use. According to the NDTS, the prevalence of heroin abuse was regarded as high by 8 of 68 Colorado law enforcement respondents--in Boulder, Denver, Englewood, Littleton, and Steamboat Springs--and as moderate by 18 respondents.

The number of admissions for heroin abuse fluctuated from 1997 through 2001. According to ADAD, in 1997 there were 1,613 admissions to treatment for heroin abuse in the state; that number rose steadily to 2,086 in 1999, then decreased to 1,896 in 2000 and to 1,810 in 2001. (See Table 1 in Overview section.) ADAD reports that more than 67 percent of abusers admitted to treatment for heroin abuse in 2001 were Caucasian and 68 percent were male. In addition, the percentage of clients admitted to treatment for heroin abuse who were under 35 years old increased to 40 percent in 2001 from 35 percent in 1995. Although injecting is the preferred means of administering heroin in Colorado (used by 81.8 percent of admitted patients), the percentage of patients who smoke or snort the drug has increased from 4.5 percent in 1995 to 9.5 percent in 2001.

Heroin is frequently a factor in ED mentions and deaths in the Denver metropolitan area as well as deaths throughout the state. According to DAWN, heroin ED mentions in the Denver metropolitan area increased steadily from 465 in 1997 to 769 in 2001. (See Chart 2.) DAWN mortality data indicate an increase in heroin-related deaths in the Denver metropolitan area--from 34 in 1996 to 77 in 2001. Statewide there were 142 heroin-related deaths in 1999, according to ADAD; that number increased to 147 in 2000 and 160 in 2001. Heroin/morphine-related calls to RMPDC likewise increased from 21 in 1997 to 36 in 2001.

Chart 2. Heroin Emergency Department Mentions, Denver, 1997-2001

Chart showing the increase in emergency department mentions for heroin in Denver for the years 1997 through 2001.


Source: DAWN.

A recent trend observed by some treatment providers in Colorado involves methamphetamine abusers using heroin as a means of curbing the stimulant effects of methamphetamine. A study by ADAD and the University of Colorado revealed that some intravenous methamphetamine abusers have developed dependence on heroin as a result. This trend does not appear to be widespread.

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Heroin is not available in all parts of Colorado; availability is largely limited to the state's metropolitan and suburban areas. According to the NDTS, 42 of 68 Colorado law enforcement respondents indicated low or no availability of heroin within their jurisdictions. Where heroin is available, Mexican black tar is the most prevalent type. Mexican brown powdered heroin also is available to a lesser extent.

The amount of heroin seized in Colorado has fluctuated during the past several years. According to FDSS data, federal law enforcement officials seized 4.9 kilograms in 1998, 2.0 kilograms in 1999, 4.9 kilograms in 2000, and 1.2 kilograms in 2001. Law enforcement officials seized 1.65 kilograms of heroin in 1999 and 3.15 kilograms in 2000 as part of Operation Pipeline and 2.41 kilograms in 2000 as part of Operation Jetway.

The number of drug-related federal sentences that were heroin-related in Colorado was lower than the percentage nationwide in FY2001. According to USSC data, in FY2001 heroin-related federal sentences constituted 3.8 percent of all drug-related federal sentences in Colorado compared with 7.2 percent nationwide. During the same year there were fewer federal sentences resulting from heroin-related offenses than for offenses associated with any other major drug.

Heroin prices in Colorado vary depending on type, quantity, and location. Mexican black tar heroin usually is available in quantities of 1 ounce or more, and brown powdered heroin typically is available in quantities of less than 1 ounce. Mexican black tar heroin and brown powdered heroin are readily available in Denver. In FY2002 Mexican heroin in Denver sold for $1,500 to $3,000 per ounce and $50 to $200 per gram, an increase from FY2001 prices of $1,300 to $2,000 per ounce and $50 to $100 per gram. In Colorado Springs Mexican black tar heroin and brown powdered heroin were less available and sold for $1,800 to $3,500 per ounce and $75 to $300 per gram. In some more rural areas where Mexican black tar heroin is available, prices can be as low as $50 per gram due to lower purity.

Availability of Mexican Black Tar Heroin on the Rise

The Summit County Task Force reports that the availability of Mexican black tar heroin in the county has "skyrocketed." Heroin-related arrests increased 400 percent in this rural county between January and June 2001, and there were three deaths attributed to heroin overdoses during the same period. Task force officials report that users in Summit County typically are in their teens or midtwenties.

Source: Summit County Drug Task Force.

Purity levels in Colorado vary depending upon type and location. According to DEA, Mexican black tar heroin in Colorado ranges from 46 to 55 percent pure, and Mexican brown powdered heroin averages 67 percent pure. The purity of Mexican heroin available in rural areas can be as low as 2 percent.

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Heroin generally is not associated with violence in Colorado. Heroin abusers sometimes commit property crimes to acquire funds to purchase the drug. Heroin distributors, however, may commit violent crimes to protect their operations. For instance, Sinaloan Cowboys, which is active in Colorado Springs and other parts of the state, is a violent street gang that distributes heroin in several jurisdictions. Its members commit homicide, burglary, kidnapping, and auto theft; some crimes may be linked to their heroin distribution activities.

Sinaloan Cowboys

Sinaloan Cowboys, a street gang primarily composed of Mexican nationals, has adopted cowboy attire and symbols. Many wear expensive cowboy boots and hats, silk shirts, and gold jewelry. Members prefer fancy vehicles with gold and chrome plating and sometimes hang a miniature lasso and saddle from the rearview mirror. Members typically possess numerous weapons including fragmentation grenades. Most members come from Sinaloa, Mexico, or from nearby areas such as Chihuahua, Durango, Michoacan, Nayarit, and Zacatecas. The principal criminal activities associated with this street gang are drug transportation and distribution.

Source: Rocky Mountain Information Network; Fort Collins Police Department.



Opium is not cultivated nor is heroin produced in Colorado. Heroin is produced in four source regions: South America, Southeast Asia, Southwest Asia, and Mexico. Most of the heroin available in Colorado is produced in Mexico.

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Mexican DTOs are the principal transporters of Mexican heroin into Colorado. These DTOs typically transport heroin into the Denver metropolitan area from Nayarit and Sinaloa, Mexico, through California and Texas. Private vehicles are the principal means used to transport heroin into Colorado. Operation Pipeline data for 1999 indicate that heroin is transported into Colorado primarily on interstate and U.S. highways, including US 160, I-25, and I-70. In May 2000 Colorado State Police seized 1.5 kilograms of Mexican brown powdered heroin from two male Mexican nationals traveling east to Pueblo on US 160 in Rio Grande, Colorado. Law enforcement officers found the heroin bundle wrapped in cellophane and hidden between the trunk liner and the rear quarter panel of the vehicle. Heroin seized in Colorado often is transiting the state and is destined for drug markets in other states.

In addition, Mexican DTOs and criminal groups transport heroin to Colorado using commercial aircraft and package delivery services. Mexican DTOs and criminal groups often recruit young, single women to serve as couriers on commercial flights. Law enforcement agencies in Aurora, Greeley, and Pueblo report that heroin is transported to those jurisdictions via couriers aboard commercial flights transiting Denver International Airport. Law enforcement information indicates that some heroin is transported to Colorado via package delivery services.



Heroin distribution in Colorado is dominated by Mexican DTOs based in Denver. These organizations supply wholesale and midlevel quantities of black tar and brown powdered heroin to distributors throughout the state, including Mexican criminal groups and a variety of Central American criminal groups that distribute the drug at the retail level.

Mexican DTOs, the principal wholesale distributors of Mexican black tar heroin in Colorado, maintain ties to Nayarit and Sinaloa, Mexico, where most of the heroin available in Colorado is produced. Mexican DTOs in Denver are associated with heroin distribution groups in Los Angeles, California; Phoenix, Arizona; and Portland, Oregon. Mexican DTOs in Denver are suspected of cooperating with each other--loaning, bartering, or intermingling quantities of either brown powdered or black tar heroin--to maintain a steady supply for the user population in Denver. Mexican DTOs in Colorado segregate into small autonomous distribution cells to minimize the organization's exposure to law enforcement. Each cell has its own source of supply, although distribution cells often share heroin with other cells when supplies are low.

Mexican DTO cells, Mexican criminal groups and, to a lesser extent, Honduran, Guatemalan, and Nicaraguan criminal groups distribute Mexican black tar and brown powdered heroin at the retail level in the Denver metropolitan area. In addition, Sinaloan Cowboys distributes heroin in the Front Range. The gang obtains heroin in Sinaloa, Mexico, and transports it to cities such as Colorado Springs for distribution.

Retail dealers sell heroin packaged in small plastic bags or aluminum foil. In the Denver metropolitan area the typical quantity sold during street transactions is one-tenth gram. Larger transactions occur inside residences or businesses.


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