DEA Congressional Testimony

Statement by:
Thomas A. Constantine
Drug Enforcement Administration
United States Department of Justice

Before the:
House Subcommittee on National Security, International Affairs and Criminal Justice Committee on Government Reform and Oversight

The Threat of Heroin to the United States

Rayburn House Office Building
Room 2154
Washington, D.C.

September 19, 1996

Note: This document may not reflect changes made in actual delivery.

Chairman Zeliff and members of the Subcommittee: It is a pleasure to appear before the Subcommittee today to discuss the rapidly increasing threat that heroin poses to our country. In my appearance today, I would like to provide you with a broad overview of the world wide heroin trade, as well as look at current abuse trends in the United States.

Most of us remember heroin as the insidious drug of the late 60s and early 70s that was mostly confined to the inner-cities. At that time, heroin was manufactured in laboratories in Marseilles, France, from morphine base produced in Turkey, then sold to Italian organized crime families in New York for further distribution in the United States. Previously, there was very little that was appealing, let alone romantic about heroin. Its abuse by entertainment personalities was largely restricted to the Jazz/Blues community. Famous artists such as John Coltrane, Billie Holliday, Jimmi Hendrix and Janis Joplin succumbed to its addiction and eventually paid a price with their lives.

"Heroin Chic"

Heroin fell from the forefront of national concern and attention with the emergence of cocaine in the late 1970s and crack cocaine in the mid 1980s as the popular drugs of choice. The heroin addict population has been relatively stable since the late 1960s. Current estimates place the hardcore user population at about 600,000 compared to 500,000 in 1970. Today the total user population (including casual use) is estimated at 2 million. Heroin use frequently leads to physical as well as psychological addiction.

While drug abuse was on the rise across the board in the 70s, the use of heroin was stigmatized and its popularity was held in check. First, due to the low purity of heroin available at the retail level, the only effective method of administration was through injection, a method that most drug users found unpalatable and not the least glamorous. With the onset of the AIDS virus and its rampant spread through the use of shared needles, most drug users found the risk too large to take and instead abused cocaine, crack and most recently, methamphetamine.

Why heroin and why now? First, the heroin that is now readily available is much purer than in years past. In the 1970s and early 1980s, the average purity of heroin at the retail level averaged between 2 and 7 percent. Now it is not uncommon to find heroin purity as high as 80 percent being sold on the street. According to results of DEA's Domestic Monitor Program (DMP), the nationwide average purity for retail heroin from all sources was 39.7 percent in 1995, over 5 times higher than a decade ago. At this purity level, heroin can be administered effectively through several methods, all far more alluring than injection and safer than using dirty needles. Snorting, and to a limited extent, smoking, also called "Chasing the Dragon," are the preferred methods of ingestion by first time and casual users. However. as the user gains tolerance, more heroin is needed for the high and snorters and smokers soon turn to injection.

The second and probably the single greatest reason for the emergence of heroin is its portrayal as what is being called "Heroin Chic" by members of the entertainment and fashion industry. A recent article in Newsweek magazine reported that the fashion industry is seen as glamorizing the junkie look in fashion photos and shows. In the last several years many people in the film and music industry have been associated with heroin. The suicide of Kurt Cobain of the rock group Nirvana occurred during the singer's battle with heroin. The recent overdose death of Johnathan Melvoin of the Smashing Pumpkins and the arrest of actor Robert Downey Jr. on charges of possession of cocaine and heroin illustrate the pull of heroin on celebrities. There are many more examples which have been reported in the press, including movies that portray heroin in a decidedly nonjudgmental way. Heroin abuse also came to the forefront in the white-collar community last summer when a Wall Street stockbroker was found dead of a heroin overdose in her apartment.

Heroin's properties make it appealing to those in high-pressure, non-stop jobs such as Wall Street. Upon ingestion of heroin, endorphins are released naturally and activate what is called the reward/pleasure center of the limbic system, the emotional center of the brain. This evokes an immediate sense of well being and often a feeling of invincibility.

The truth is, there is no romance in heroin. There is nothing chic about its use and certainly nothing positive about its results. When the results of heroin abuse are seen up close, all of those images collapse. As with all narcotics, the pleasurable feelings of well being and being in control are not sustainable unless the dosages are increased. With the increase of dosages, particularly with the high purity of heroin being sold today, the onset of addiction is hastened dramatically.

The annual number of heroin-related emergency room mentions increased from 34,000 in 1990 to 76,000 in 1994. The Cornell University Hospital reports the number of middle class people requesting treatment for heroin addiction has increased tenfold in the past two years. According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, about 50 percent of users seeking treatment last year used needles: this year, according to a sampling of large treatment programs in selected cities, that figure is up to 75 per cent. As the addict population grows older, that figure can be expected to increase. Those users injecting heroin now have the highest rate of new HIV infection. Further exacerbating the problem is the fact that when novices used to other methods of administration switch to needles, the high quality of heroin that is often available on the street greatly increases the risk of overdose. Between 3,000 and 4,000 heroin abusers die of overdoses annually.

The History of the Heroin Trade

The first major influx of heroin into the United States occurred between 1967 and 1971 from Turkish opium that had been processed in laboratories in France and supplied through the infamous "French Connection" to Italian Organized Crime Families in New York. These La Cosa Nostra families largely controlled the wholesale heroin trade in the United States throughout the 1970s. Aggressive enforcement, and a total ban on opium poppy cultivation in Turkey, substantially reduced the supply of heroin available through the French Connection.

In the mid-1970s, heroin produced in Mexico emerged onto the U.S. market to supplant European heroin, particularly in the West and Midwest regions of the United States. This brown heroin, frequently referred to as "Mexican Mud," was of relatively low purity and far less appealing. However, due to its lower purity, Mexican traffickers were able to market it at substantially lower prices than European-produced heroin and found a ready market in the West and Midwest.

By the mid-1980s, the heroin market in the United States was shared by suppliers from three major regions: Mexico dominated the market on the West Coast; heroin produced in Southwest Asia/Middle East (Pakistan Afghanistan Turkey and Lebanon); and the Golden Triangle of Southeast Asia (Burma, Laos and Thailand), which became the major source of supply for the Midwest and the East Coast. Southwest Asian heroin was marketed through ethnic outlets in the Northeast and Midwest, and Southeast Asian heroin was marketed primarily by ethnic Chinese who replaced the French Connection as the major source of supply of heroin for organized crime families.

The Fight for the Growing U.S. Market


According to the DEA's Heroin Signature Program (HSP) results in 1995, South America was the predominant source area for heroin seized in the United States for the first time, accounting for 62 percent of the total heroin analyzed, an increase over last year's total of 32 percent. Colombian heroin is smuggled into the United States by couriers who use ingestion or body carries to get heroin into the country, mostly in one-to-three kilo quantities. Aggressive interdiction programs and Miami International Airport and New York's JFK Airport have accounted for nearly half of all samples analyzed.

There is no question that heroin produced in and controlled by groups in Colombia is being aggressively marketed throughout the Northeast, and more recently, the Midwest. These two areas have, by far, the largest portion of the heroin addict population in the United States.

Colombian traffickers have been attempting to make inroads into the U.S. heroin market for the last several years. Reports of substantial opium poppy cultivation in Colombia began in 1990. By 1992, couriers from Colombia were being arrested on a regular basis at Miami International Airport and JFK with one to two kilograms of heroin. Within the United States, the same groups who are distributing cocaine are now also trafficking in heroin.

To compensate for their late entry into the heroin trade, and to establish themselves in the marketplace. Colombian traffickers provided high-quality heroin, 80 to 99 percent pure, to a fiercely competitive market where high purity is essential to establishing a clientele and maintaining user loyalty. To further entice customers, they offer their product at cut rate prices. Heroin prices have been relatively stable for years. High-quality Southeast Asian heroin costs $150,000 to $200 000 per kilogram, and Southwest Asian heroin, not consistently as pure as that from the Golden Triangle, sells for approximately $120,000 to $150,000 per kilogram. Lesser quality Mexican heroin is often priced under $100,000 per kilogram, but because of its inconsistent quality and black tarry appearance it has never gained popularity outside the West and Southwest regions of the United States.

Colombian traffickers began offering their product at $90,000 per kilogram and gave perspective customers free samples to get a foothold. Other methods used to establish market share were to allow customers to take multiple kilograms on consignment, and forcing cocaine customers to accept quantities of heroin along with their cocaine shipment as a condition of doing business. The other dilemma faced by these traffickers was a lack of connections to the mid-level wholesalers in the urban heroin trade, which they quickly solved by enlisting Dominican gangs to bridge the gap. This was a natural choice due to the Dominican Nationals having already established ties in this area through their position as mid-level cocaine wholesalers.

We have seen these independent groups using similar tactics in other major cities such as Boston and Detroit, where they are pushing high- grade heroin on to the streets, at extremely low prices to wrest the heroin trade from Middle Eastern and Mexican traffickers.

Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia, principally Burma, is the world's largest producer of opium. Large-scale production in Southeast Asia and China reached 2,561 metric tons in 1995, well over half of the world opium production of 4,157 metric tons. The conversion ratio of opium to heroin is approximately ten-to-one, therefore Southeast Asia has the capacity to produce over 200 metric tons of heroin annually. However, not all of this heroin reaches the U.S. market due to the consumption of opiates by the large addict population in Southeast Asia.

Most of the heroin exported from Southeast Asia is produced along the Burma-Thailand and Burma-China border in areas controlled by the United Wa State Army, the Kokang Chinese, or the Shan United Army (SUA). Once the premier producer of heroin in the world, the Shan United Army suffered major setbacks in beginning of 1994. Its northern bases were attacked by the Burmese Army and the United Wa State Army while Thailand maintained its closed border policy with the Shan State, restricting the flow of supplies. On November 27, 1994, the Royal Thai Police and the Thai Army, working with DEA, arrested 13 senior SUA traffickers in 'Operation Tiger Trap," with a host of major traffickers under indictment in the United States. "Operation Tiger Trap" had a crippling effect on the Shan United Army's command and control network, and on its cash flow. As a result, the heroin trafficking empire of Khun Sa began to crumble. On January 1, 1996, the Government of Burma peacefully occupied the headquarters of the Shan United Army and the notorious heroin warlord Khun Sa surrendered.

Heroin produced in Southeast Asia is shipped to the United States primarily by two methods: ethnic Chinese, who control a substantial portion of the Southeast heroin distributed in the United States, and by Nigerian nationals. The ethnic Chinese utilize commercial cargo to tranship heroin in 50 to 100 kilogram quantities, frequently through Canada to the United States. These traffickers have, until recently, dominated the heroin market in the northeast corridor of the United States, which has by far the largest addict population of any region in the country.

Organizations controlled by Nigerian nationals are also responsible for smuggling a significant amount of the Southeast Asia heroin and selling it on the streets of the United States. Many Nigerian organizations are based in, and controlled from, Lagos. Nigeria, and these groups are formed along tribal lines. Their organizations in the United States are loosely structured relying on sophisticated documentation to support multiple identities and aliases and communication via pay phones in tribal languages to protect their heroin trafficking activities.

Nigerian traffickers maintain a large stable of couriers who either body-carry, ingest, or use luggage with concealed compartments to smuggle multi-kilogram quantities of heroin from Thailand to the U.S. mainland. Early on, they utilized female Nigerian couriers to move the heroin; however as interdiction efforts in Thailand and international airports around the world became more and more successful at identifying and arresting the couriers, they began recruiting both male and females of all ages from a variety of nationalities to act as couriers. Nigerian traffickers, who got their start in the heroin trade as smugglers, have now firmly entrenched themselves in the wholesale distribution market, particularly in Chicago. Chicago now serves as one of the most important centers, if not the hub of Nigerian heroin trafficking in the United States.

Southwest Asia

Southwest Asian (Afghanistan, Pakistan, Lebanon and Turkey) heroin distribution in the United States is dominated by ethnic groups from that region. Their share of the heroin market, (roughly 16 per cent of the heroin seized domestically) comes mainly through ethnic distribution organizations in the Midwest, West Coast and the Northeast corridor. Most of the heroin produced in Southwest Asia is consumed in the region or is destined for the lucrative European market with clandestine laboratories in Turkey again playing a major role in regional opiate conversion activity. Costs associated with the smuggling of heroin into Europe are far less than the United States, and their product brings a far better price in the European markets, especially with the huge influx of Colombian heroin being sold on the U.S. market at cut rate prices.


Approximately 53 metric tons of opium were produced in Mexico in 1995. Virtually all of this is converted to heroin and shipped to the United States. The heroin produced in Mexico is in either brown powder or the more familiar "black tar" form. Distribution is largely controlled by members of the Mexican Federation who utilize distribution outlets established in the West and Midwest through years of polydrug trafficking. Mexican heroin accounts for approximately 5 percent of the heroin seized in the United States. They have never been able to penetrate the larger markets in the Northeast due to the lack of a distribution infrastructure and the competition from established ethnic Chinese and most recently, Colombian traffickers.

The groups from Mexico control the entire process from opium production and heroin processing, to the management of the transportation and distribution networks in the United States. Both Mexico and Colombia enjoy a marketing advantage over producers in Southeast and Southwest Asia by virtue of their proximity to the United States. Mexican trafficking groups limit their exposure to U.S. law enforcement efforts by merely stockpiling their heroin near the border in Mexico, smuggling small amounts into the United States at the time of each sale. This technique combined with Mexican control of the entire process from opium cultivation to wholesale heroin distribution enables these organizations to maximize their profits.

DEA's Response:

The President's heroin strategy recognizes that because the heroin industry is more decentralized and diversified than the cocaine trade, a different approach is necessary to blunt the impact of growing heroin problems. In implementing the President's plan, DEA's primary enforcement strategy is to identify those individuals and organizations within the United States responsible for heroin trafficking, and to target these individuals and organizations, with the ultimate goal of arresting them. DEA also seeks to ensure that these drug traffickers serve long sentences, and to provide for a follow up effort in source countries to identify and incarcerate the sources of supply.

Domestically we are targeting our investigative resources at the organized Chinese and Nigerian gangs who control the Southeast Asian heroin. In 1995, the Chicago Field Division identified a Nigerian Cell operating in Chicago that was receiving 20 kilograms of heroin monthly from Bangkok and redistributing it to street gangs in Chicago. All of this heroin was smuggled into the country in five-kilogram quantities concealed in suitcases; most couriers were female of either British or American nationality and under the age of 25. Through an interagency effort including DEA, Customs, and other agencies, we were able to arrest 21 individuals belonging to this relatively small cell of violators. In conjunction with the U.S. Customs Service, we are also intensifying our interdiction efforts at key international airports, and through our cooperation with state and local officials around the United States supporting Operation Pipeline, an interdiction effort targeted at cocaine and heroin being moved cross country via passenger vehicle. In New York, there were several recent cases which illustrate the complexity of the international heroin trade. In January 1996, DEA Albany, working with the Albany Police Department, INS, the U.S. Postal Service and the Capital District Drug Task Force, arrested two suspects at an Albany restaurant after they took possession of 900 grams of heroin. The investigation began 10 days prior, when Her Majesty's Customs informed DEA London that heroin had been detected in packages mailed from Afghanistan to locations in New York.

Two other heroin cases culminated on March 20, 1996. In the first, DEA New York and the New York City Police Department arrested 12 members of a Queens-based heroin trafficking organization which distributed heroin in Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn and New Jersey. A related investigation by DEA Newark into a New Jersey drug ring supplied by the Queens-based organization resulted in the arrest of 14 defendants and the seizure of 846 bags of heroin, 126 vials of crack. Heroin supplied by this group, marketed under the brand name "Second to None" was responsible for previous overdose deaths in Bayonne and Jersey City.

The second case involved DEA Albany working with the Amsterdam, the New York Police Department, the Montgomery County Sheriff's Department, the New York State Police, ATF and IRS. Twenty-one members of a cocaine and heroin trafficking ring operating in Amsterdam and New York were arrested. The group's leader was located and arrested by DEA in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Another example of an initiative we are pursuing is the Heroin Markings Data Base established and maintained by our New England Field Division . The data base contains information gleaned from DEA and state and local police department files that document and track the markings on heroin packaging. This process allows us to measure the scope of trafficking organizations, corroborate informant/witness information, and in the case of overdose deaths, identify the trafficking group that administered the fatal dose. This capability may also allow us to file additional and substantive charges on the leaders of these organizations and reinforce the risks associated with the distribution of heroin.

Internationally, in an effort to address the substantial problem posed by sophisticated Nigerian groups who run a vast network of heroin couriers, DEA is opening an office in Pretoria, South Africa. There has been a large migration of Nigerian nationals to South Africa which has over 40 international airlines servicing the country and a modern transportation system. South Africa sits at an ideal crossroads for Nigerian traffickers smuggling heroin from the Far East to Europe and the United States, as well as cocaine from South America to South Africa and Europe. We have requested to open an office in Beijing, China, but at the present time, the Chinese Government has declined U.S. representation in that nation's capitol.


Mr. Chairman and Members of the Committee, the heroin problem facing the United States at the current time is serious and must be addressed quickly to ensure that we do not have another epidemic, as we had with crack in the 1980s. The recent overdose deaths and coverage of the heroin issue in the press have focused attention on heroin, and I believe that is the first step if we are committed to addressing this issue seriously. DEA continues to work diligently at home and overseas to dismantle the world's most significant drug trafficking organizations. We appreciate the support we have been given from the Congress, and we look forward to working with Congress in the coming years to ensure that our nation's citizens are safe and free from the drug scourge which has taken far too many lives.

Travel back to the DRCNet Response to the DEA Home Page

Travel back to the DRCNet Response to the DEA Congressional Testimony List