Pubdate: Mon, 12 Jan 2015
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Copyright: 2015 The Washington Post Company
Author: Nick Miroff


Seizure Data Shows Drug Trade Is Changing

SAN YSIDRO, CALIF. - Mexican traffickers are sending a flood of cheap 
heroin and methamphetamine across the U.S. border, the latest drug 
seizure statistics show, in a new sign that America's marijuana 
decriminalization trend is upending the North American narcotics trade.

The amount of cannabis seized by U.S. federal, state and local 
officers along the boundary with Mexico has fallen 37 percent since 
2011, a period during which American marijuana consumers have 
increasingly turned to the more potent, higher-grade domestic 
varieties cultivated under legal and quasi-legal protections in more 
than two dozen U.S. states.

Made-in-the-USA marijuana is quickly displacing the cheap, seedy, 
hard-packed version harvested by the bushel in Mexico's Sierra Madre 
mountains. That has prompted Mexican drug farmers to plant more opium 
poppies, and the sticky brown and black "tar" heroin they produce is 
channeled by traffickers into the U.S. communities hit hardest by 
prescription painkiller abuse, offering addicts a $10 alternative to 
$80-a-pill oxycodone.

"Legalization of marijuana for recreational use has given U.S. 
consumers access to high-quality marijuana, with genetically improved 
strains, grown in greenhouses," said Raul Benitez-Manaut, a drug-war 
expert at Mexico's National Autonomous University. "That's why the 
Mexican cartels are switching to heroin and meth."

U.S. law enforcement agents seized 2,181 kilograms of heroin last 
year coming from Mexico, nearly three times the amount confiscated in 2009.

Methamphetamine, too, has surged, mocking the Hollywood image of 
backwoods bayou labs and "Breaking Bad" chemists. The reality, 
according to Drug Enforcement Administration figures, is that 90 
percent of the meth on U.S. streets is cooked in Mexico, where 
precursor chemicals are far easier to obtain.

"The days of the large-scale U.S. meth labs are pretty much gone, 
given how much the Mexicans have taken over production south of the 
border and distribution into the United States," said Lawrence Payne, 
a DEA spokesman. "Their product is far superior, cheaper and more pure."

Last year, 15,803 kilograms of the drug was seized along the border, 
up from 3,076 kilos in 2009.

"Criminal organizations are no longer going for bulk marijuana," said 
Sidney Aki, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection port director here 
at the agency's busiest crossing for pedestrians and passenger 
vehicles, just south of San Diego. "Hard drugs are the growing trend, 
and they're profitable in small amounts."

Voters in the District of Columbia and 23 U.S. states have approved 
marijuana for recreational or medical use, with Colorado, Washington 
state, Alaska and Oregon opting for full legalization. Estimates of 
the size of America's marijuana harvest vary widely, and DEA 
officials say they do not know how quickly it may be increasing as a 
result of decriminalization.

Mexican cartels continue to deploy people as "mules" strapped with 
50-pound marijuana backpacks to hike through the Arizona borderlands 
and send commercial trucks into Texas with bales of shrink-wrapped 
cannabis so big they need to be taken out on a forklift.

But the profitability of the marijuana trade has slumped on falling 
demand for Mexico's "brick weed," so called because it is crushed 
into airtight bundles for transport across the border. Drug farmers 
in the Sierra Madre say that they can barely make money planting mota anymore.

The cartels, and consumers, are turning away from cocaine, too. Last 
year, U.S. agents confiscated 11,917 kilograms of cocaine along the 
Mexico border, down from 27,444 kilos in 2011.

This reflects lower demand for the drug in the United States, experts 
say, as well as a cartel business preference for heroin and meth. 
Those two substances can be cheaply produced in Mexico, unlike 
cocaine, which is far pricier, and therefore riskier, because it must 
be smuggled from South America.

The Sinaloa cartel, considered Mexico's most powerful drug 
trafficking organization despite the capture last February of leader 
Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, remains the dominant criminal power along 
Mexico's Pacific Coast. Its territory spans the entire western half 
of the U.S.-Mexico boundary, from Ciudad Juarez, opposite El Paso, to 
Tijuana, on the Pacific Coast.

At harvest time, the cartel's middlemen make their rounds to remote 
Sierra Madre stream valleys in pickup trucks and fourwheelers, armed 
with guns and cash. They buy sticky balls of raw opium from 
hardscrabble farmers and deliver them to crude heroin kitchens that 
prepare the drug for shipment. The U.S. interstate highway system is 
less than a day's drive away.

Heroin and meth are far easier to transport and conceal than 
marijuana. Especially worrisome to U.S. officials is a growing trend 
of more border-crossing pedestrians carrying the drugs strapped under 
their clothing or hidden in body cavities.

"The criminals are trying to blend in among the legitimate travelers, 
who are 99 percent of the individuals crossing through here," said 
Aki, the San Ysidro port director. "That's the hard part for us."

At the San Ysidro crossing, soon to expand to 35 lanes, U.S. agents 
with drug-sniffing dogs and foot-long screwdrivers weave among the 
lines of cars that back up into Mexico.

Agents say the screwdrivers, some so old their handles are worn to a 
nub, are their most valuable investigative tool. Agents knock them 
against tires and gas tanks for a quick sonic impression.

"If you tap a tank with something solid inside, there's a thud," one 
inspector said. "It's like hitting concrete."

Harder to detect are "deep-concealed" drugs buried in fake engine 
cylinders, dashboard panels, even acid-proof capsules inside car 
batteries. One vehicle seized here last year carried liquid meth in 
its windshield-wiper reservoir.

Finding small packages in the river of cars and trucks coming across 
is akin to a game of "Where's Waldo?" for U.S. inspectors. Vehicles 
that arouse the suspicions of border agents or get their dogs barking 
and lunging are sent to a secondary inspection station with giant 
X-ray machines and larger teams of screwdriver-wielding inspectors.

If drugs don't appear, the agents may drive the vehicles into garages 
to open their engines, pry apart interior panels and search for any 
signs of suspicious alterations. Traffickers will sometimes mist 
decoy vehicles with marijuana oil or resin to provoke the dogs and 
draw agents into a fruitless search.

"It's like a fish fry," Aki said. "The fish is gone, but the scent is 
still there."

With the dogs and agents tied up inspecting the decoys, the 
traffickers may try sneaking meth and heroin through.

In recent years, Mexican cartels also have begun producing 
higher-value "white" heroin, typically associated with traffickers 
from Colombia or Asia, according to DEA officials.

"The Mexicans are evolving in their production abilities and getting 
more sophisticated," said Payne, the DEA spokesman. "It's not just 
black tar anymore."

Colombian and Caribbean traffickers once controlled heroin 
distribution east of the Mississippi River, but Mexican criminal 
groups now dominate the entire North American market, he said.

The United States has an estimated 600,000 heroin users, Payne said - 
a threefold increase in the past five years. But that number is 
dwarfed by the estimated 10 million Americans who abuse prescription 

Those addicts are the prime target for the booming heroin business. A 
U.S. crackdown on prescription opiates has driven up the price for 
drugs such as OxyContin and Percocet, enticing desperate addicts to 
switch to cheap heroin to fend off withdrawal symptoms.

The profile of U.S. heroin addiction is also changing, said Phil 
Herschman, chief clinical officer with the CRC Health Group, which 
operates 170 treatment centers in 30 U.S. states.

"Now, we're seeing housewives coming in who had been addicted to 
Vicodin for two or three years before switching to heroin, or 
adolescents who got hooked by snorting it, thinking it was safe, only 
to end up injecting themselves," he said.

"You can't even begin to measure how it tears families apart," he 
added. "It's devastating."
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom