Pubdate: Thu, 13 Sep 2001
Source: Detroit Free Press (MI)
Copyright: 2001 Detroit Free Press
Author: Juan O. Tamayo, Knight Ridder Newspapers
Bookmark: (Heroin)
Bookmark: (Heroin Overdose)


U.S., Colombia Sound Alarm Over Increase

LA CAMPANA, Colombia -- Clinging to a steep hillside 9,000 feet high in the
Andes, Mariana Almendro's tiny garden is a gorgeous blanket of red, violet
and pink opium poppies. Profitable, too, producing a milky gum that brings
about $115 a pound from buyers who turn it into heroin.

A Guambiano Indian living on a reservation a half-hour drive from the
nearest paved road, Almendro, 48, said she sees nothing wrong with her
illegal crop.

"It just brings in a little money for food," she said.

But U.S. and Colombian officials are sounding an alarm over a dramatic
increase in the number and size of U.S.-bound shipments of heroin seized in
recent months, and a possible boom in poppy cultivation.

While Colombia grows only 2 percent of the world's opium poppies, its heroin
accounts for 66 percent of all U.S. seizures and 72 percent of the total
seized on the East Coast, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration.

With Afghanistan's Taliban rulers outlawing poppies in a country that
produced 70 percent of the world's heroin last year, mostly for Asian and
European consumption, Colombian traffickers may be tempted to fill the gap.

After pumping $1.3 billion in U.S. aid into a Colombian counter-narcotics
offensive largely targeted on cocaine -- the country produces 80 percent of
the world's total -- U.S. officials are now paying increasing attention to a
drug once considered almost outdated.

"We must develop a heroin strategy," U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson said.
"We're seeing a dramatic increase in heroin purity and seizures."

Leo Arreguin, head of the DEA office in Bogota, said that is why he is
working to add 13 agents to his staff, a 10-percent increase, devoted solely
to what he called "a priority for probably everyone in the United States."

"Hospitals are flooded with overdoses in Miami, in Orlando, all along the
East Coast, North Carolina, South Carolina, Baltimore, New York and New
Jersey, everywhere, because of this," Arreguin said.

Destination: United States

Signs of growth in the heroin trade are everywhere in Colombia, racked by a
bloody war in which leftist guerrillas and rightist paramilitaries finance
themselves by protecting the illicit drug markets.

Colombian police recorded seizures totaling 1,650 pounds of heroin in the
first half of this year, three times the figure for the same period in 2000
and 25 percent higher than the total seized last year.

Arrests of so-called mules -- travelers who try to smuggle small quantities
of heroin in suitcases or swallowed capsules -- totaled 160 in the first six
months of this year, compared with 266 in all of 2000.

And in a nine-day period in June, Colombian troops seized shipments of 147
pounds -- a national record -- and 66 pounds, compared with average seizures
of 4 to 9 pounds in the past year, worth $25.8 million wholesale in New

"All of a sudden, in the last three to four months we started noticing large
cargoes, bulk cargoes," Arreguin said. "And when you're talking about
heroin, the final destination is always the United States."

Less certain is whether the increased seizures are the result of expanded
poppy cultivation, improved law enforcement or new smuggling methods
requiring larger shipments.

Gangs Pool Shipments

Borrowing a page from cocaine smugglers, the usually family-based gangs that
run the heroin trade have recently begun pooling their shipments, so that
one big score can make up for many little losses, Arreguin said.

Estimating the size of poppy fields is more difficult than it is for coca,
the raw material for cocaine. While coca bushes are a lowland crop easily
identified by satellites, poppies are smaller plants grown on the upper
slopes of Andean mountains, often draped in clouds.

The anti-narcotics division of the Colombian National Police reported a drop
in poppy cultivation last year, from 16,000 acres estimated for 1999 to
15,300 acres by the end of 2000.

But one of its senior officers in the southern state of Cauca, where La
Campana is located, estimated Cauca alone holds more than 18,000 acres and
that neighboring Tolima state has far more. Nine other states are known to
have poppy plantations, said the officer, who asked for anonymity.

The CIA's annual survey of illicit Colombian crops reported no poppy data
for 2000 because of cloud cover during its satellite passes. But its 1999
estimate of 18,500 acres was 25 percent higher than its 1998 figure.

"There is more out there than we can find right now," Patterson said.

Colombian police crop dusters, financed largely by Washington, sprayed
22,900 acres of poppies with herbicides in the first half of this year,
compared with 11,400 in the same period in 2000, plus 125,000 acres of coca.

Poppies are a far different crop from coca.

While coca is usually grown in plots of 3 to 4 acres or more and requires
many fertilizers, insecticides and relatively sophisticated chemistry to
turn it into cocaine, poppies are grown in much smaller plots, require
little care and are much easier to process into heroin.

Backyard Farmers

But for their farmers the story is the same: The illegal crops can make the
difference between hunger and putting meat on the table once a week.

The police and army abandoned their bases in Silvia, the main town in the
Guambiano region, following a 1999 attack by the leftist Revolutionary Armed
Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and have not returned.

While U.S. and Colombian officials say they are concerned mostly about
so-called industrial plantations of an acre and up, most of the plots in
this region are family-owned gardens no bigger than an average backyard.

One acre of poppies yields about 11 pounds a year of milky gum that hardens
into opium, worth about $1,250. In comparison, an acre of onions brings
about $30.

"No one is rich here. This is just to be less poor," said Almendro, a widow
living with her three children in a one-room adobe hut up a steep and
winding gorge from Silvia.

Heroin smugglers, meanwhile, have proven to be sharp businesspeople,
capturing the U.S. market since the mid-1990s by selling their product at
wholesale prices well below those of Asian heroin -- $36,000 per pound
compared with $114,000.

Cheap prices and purity so high that Colombian heroin can be smoked or
snorted instead of injected have led to increased use in the United States.

The number of habitual U.S. heroin users climbed from 855,000 to 977,000
between 1995 and 2000, according to data gathered by the White House's
Office of National Drug Control Strategy.

Arreguin said such figures underline the need to create the 13-member DEA
heroin task force under the joint Colombian-U.S. counter-narcotics program
broadly known as Plan Colombia.

"This is a priority, not only for Colombia but for American consumers," he
said. "Heroin has become a major problem, and if we don't do something now
we're going to have more and more of our young people not only addicted but
dying from overdoses."
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