Pubdate: Thu, 06 Dec 2001
Source: Inquirer (PA)
Copyright: 2001 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc
Author: Kevin G. Hall, Knight Ridder News Service


It's Replacing Cocaine As The Choice Of Smugglers, Border Authorities Say

MEXICO CITY - Heroin is a growing concern along the porous U.S.-Mexico 
border, where cocaine has been dominant.

Authorities say they are discovering larger and larger shipments - a trend 
indicating that Mexican drug cartels are increasingly confident of their 
ability to get the highly priced heroin past border points.

A joint U.S.-Mexico investigation, recently disclosed, resulted in the 
seizure of 782 pounds of heroin, a quantity that some law-enforcement 
officials believe indicates Mexican traffickers are preparing to challenge 
Colombian gangs that distribute on the U.S. East Coast.

"Seven hundred pounds of heroin is a lot of heroin," said a U.S. official 
in Mexico who participated in Operation Landslide, as the U.S.-Mexico 
investigation was dubbed.

Operation Landslide resulted in 42 arrests and broke up an alleged 
heroin-distribution ring that trafficked from the Mexican states of 
Michoacan and Baja California to 37 U.S. cities, ranging from San Jose, 
Calif., to St. Louis. The core distribution cells were in Los Angeles, San 
Francisco and San Jose.

Operation Landslide began almost three years ago with the seizure of more 
than 253 pounds of heroin at the southwest border with Mexico. Over the 
course of the probe, there were other big seizures - 100 pounds of heroin 
in San Luis, Ariz.; 59 pounds in Laredo, Texas; and 92 pounds in Del Rio, 
Texas, among others.

"We've seized more. Does that mean more is coming across? Probably. But 
what is clear is the loads are larger from Mexico and the traffickers are 
pretty bold," said Dean Boyd, a spokesman at Customs Service headquarters 
in Washington.

"These guys could be characterized as very audacious," Boyd said.

The volumes are even more troubling in light of a similar action last year 
called Operation Tar Pit. That operation, unveiled June 15, 2000, broke a 
heroin ring in the state of Nayarit and documented that Mexican drug 
organizations were stepping up heroin smuggling to new markets such as 
Detroit, where Colombians have traditionally dominated. Previously, Mexican 
cartels had seldom sold heroin east of the Mississippi River.

Agents also discovered last year that Mexican gangs had improved the purity 
of their product, which requires a sophisticated transformation from poppy 
plant to opium gum to heroin. And purity equals profit. A September report 
from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration said lower-grade brown or 
black-tar heroin from Mexico sells for $13,000 to $75,000 a kilogram (2.2 
pounds). In comparison, Asian heroin of higher purity sells for $40,000 to 
$190,000 per kilogram, and Colombian heroin, generally the purest on the 
drug market, sells for $50,000 to $200,000.

There is evidence that Mexican heroin gangs are striving to match the 
efficiency of their Colombian rivals. A U.S. official said authorities had 
spotted Colombian "chemists," who prepare heroin, working with the Mexicans 
"to the point where they can compete against southeast and southwest Asia 
and Colombia in terms of white heroin."
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