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The Availability of Southwest Asian Heroin in the Unites States
The Availability of Southwest Asian Heroin in the United States
Recent seizures of suspected Southwest Asian (SWA) heroin in the United States have given rise to speculation that increasing amounts of SWA heroin now are available domestically. However, investigative intelligence and indicator programs suggest that it is too soon to determine if these seizures represent a concerted effort by SWA heroin trafficking organizations to expand their operations and market share in the United States.
Overview of Recent Seizures
Three significant seizures of SWA heroin have occurred in the United States in the past
5 months, two of which resulted from an investigation of one SWA heroin trafficking
These are the first major seizures of SWA heroin in the United States since August 1994, when 14 kilograms were found buried in San Bernardino County, California. The 68-kilogram seizure in Lubbock, Texas, is the largest U.S. seizure of SWA heroin and the sixth largest U.S. seizure from any source area. It should be noted, however, that these recent domestic seizures resulted from investigations of major traffickers in Southwest Asia. No significant seizures of SWA heroin have been made domestically as a result of random or "cold" interdiction efforts. This indicates that there is not a ready supply of SWA heroin in the United States.
SWA Heroin Trafficking in the United States
From 1980 through 1987, SWA heroin was the predominant form of heroin available in the United States, as evidenced by its prominence in DEA indicator data and the large number of investigations that were conducted against SWA heroin traffickers. However, since that time, heroin from Southeast Asia has dominated the domestic market. This shift occurred for two primary reasons. First, drug law enforcement investigations successfully dismantled much of the smuggling and trafficking operations of SWA heroin organizations in the United States. Second, heroin production in Southeast Asia had increased dramatically during that time frame
Nevertheless, large, well-organized SWA heroin trafficking groups and small, independent traffickers remain capable of supplying heroin to the U.S. market. All available indicators, however, show that the largest organizations trafficking SWA heroin continue to supply established distribution networks throughout Europe, the primary market for SWA heroin. The United States remains a secondary target for these traffickers. Most of these organizations store heroin supplies in secure European locations and only send shipments to the United States after a buyer is identified and has paid a partial payment. Generally, the balance due is payable upon delivery in the United States.
Most SWA heroin trafficking groups in the United States are cohesive and difficult to penetrate because they are based on ethnic, familial, religious, and tribal relationships. The traffickers and wholesale distributors generally are cautious, rarely transacting business with outsiders. SWA heroin trafficking and distribution generally are more prevalent in cities with large populations from Afghanistan, Greece, Lebanon, Pakistan, and Turkey, such as Chicago, Detroit, and New York City.
Domestic Heroin Availability and Abuse Indicators
Two programs used by the Intelligence Division to monitor heroin availability in the
United States are the Heroin Signature Program (HSP) and the Domestic Monitor Program
(DMP). The HSP employs an in-depth chemical analysis to determine the source region for
all heroin seizures made at U.S. ports of entry (e.g., international airports and border
crossings) and a random sampling of seizures and purchases made domestically. In general
terms, the HSP provides a glimpse of heroin trafficking at the wholesale level.
The HSP, the DMP, seizure data, and abuse indicators all suggest that SWA heroin market share and purity in the United States remain low. According to the 1994 HSP, Southeast Asia was the prevalent source area for heroin seized in the United States, accounting for 57 percent of the total net weight of heroin analyzed within the program. South American heroin accounted for 32 percent, SWA heroin accounted for 6 percent, and Mexican heroin accounted for 5 percent. Preliminary figures for the HSP for 1995 indicate that - as a result of the two large seizures effected in December - the proportion of SWA heroin rose to 16 percent, still less than the proportion for both Southeast Asian and South American heroin. The representation of SWA heroin in the HSP for 1996 likely will remain close to the 1995 level due to the large seizure made in March 1996.
Purchases of SWA heroin made through the DMP continue to be minimal. For example, of
the 660 heroin exhibits purchased in 1995, only 4 were determined to be of Southwest Asian
origin with an average purity of 26.5 percent. (DMP figures for 1995 are preliminary.) By
comparison, during the late 1980's, the number of SWA heroin exhibits in the DMP ranged
from 30 to 36 per year, out of a total of between 230 and 325 purchases per year.
This fact poses a serious question regarding the SWA heroin base seizures listed previously. Because heroin base is not water-soluble (i.e., it cannot be injected nor inhaled like heroin hydrochloride (HCl) and can only be smoked), it is unclear what was to be done with these large shipments. Although heroin base can be converted for use by injection, it requires the user or distributor to perform a crude and not widely known procedure that is rendered unnecessary by the ready availability of heroin HCl at the retail level. It is not known if the heroin base was to be converted to heroin HCl in clandestine laboratories within the United States. Between 1978 and 1985, 8 clandestine heroin processing laboratories were seized in the United States by DEA. At most, only 2 of these laboratories simply were converting heroin base to heroin HCl. There have been no heroin laboratory seizures since 1985.
Although the recent seizures are significant, it is too soon to conclude that SWA heroin traffickers are attempting to expand their share of the heroin market in the United States. All investigative intelligence and indicator data show that the availability of SWA heroin in the United States remains minimal. Some of these intelligence indicators are described below.
Nonetheless, domestic SWA heroin trafficking warrants increased attention for several reasons. First, opium production in Southwest Asia has been increasing since 1990, implying that more heroin from that region will be available for smuggling to the United States, assuming stable heroin supplies and consumption rates in Europe. Second, declining heroin prices in Europe and higher prices in the United States may prompt SWA heroin traffickers to target the U.S. market. Third, the recent seizures prove that large quantities of heroin can be smuggled successfully into the United States.
This report was prepared by the Domestic Unit of the Strategic Intelligence Section. For additional information, please contact the Intelligence Production Unit, Intelligence Division, DEA Headquarters, at (202) 307-8726.
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