DEA Press Release

September 3, 1996

Colombian Heroin a Major Threat:
62% Seized in the United States Originates in South America

South American (primarily Colombian) heroin now accounts for a staggering 62% of heroin seized domestically in 1995. This is a dramatic shift; in 1989, most (96%) of the heroin seized in the United States originated in Southeast or Southwest Asia. By 1993, when the DEA developed procedures to identify South American heroin, South American heroin accounted for just 15% of seizures. From 1993 to 1994 the South American heroin seizures doubled, and accounted for an astonishing 32% of the heroin seized. According to DEA Administrator Thomas Constantine, “Last year, nearly a third of the heroin seized in the United States came from South America. Today, just one year later, the amount has nearly doubled again with 62% of heroin seized traced to South America.* ”

“Independent Colombian traffickers have moved into heroin and this is no accident—as I said last year, it’s a shrewd marketing decision made to capitalize on the increased profits that can be derived from heroin trafficking. Right now they are positioning themselves to be central players in the Western Hemisphere heroin market by the year 2000. They control cocaine and they are looking to control heroin. Crack cocaine has devastated families and neighborhoods across the country. South American heroin has the potential of doing the same,” he added.

The DEA’s Domestic Monitor Program (DMP), which tracks price, purity and availability through analysis of street level purchases also shows an increase in the availability of this high-purity heroin, particularly in the Northeast— in Boston, Newark, New York City and Philadelphia. The availability of this high-purity heroin directly parallels the increase in overdoses and deaths in the region.

Taking a snapshot of these northeastern cities alone for 1995, South American heroin accounted for over 9 of every 10 DMP purchases with an average street level purity of 71 percent, almost 30 percent higher than the average heroin street level purity nationwide. During the first 6 months of 1995, the nationwide average purity for retail heroin from all sources was 39.9%, much higher than the average of 7% reported a decade ago, and considerably higher than the 26.6% recorded in 1991.

The significant rise in average purity corresponds directly to the increase in availability of high-purity South American heroin. Philadelphia has had the highest average purity for DMP purchases for the last three years running (74.7% in 1993, 64.3% in 1994 and 70.9 % in 1995.) In addition, all the street level heroin analyzed in Philadelphia, New Orleans, and San Juan was of South American origin, and for the first time almost all the heroin analyzed by the DEA in Miami, traditionally a cocaine market, has been of South American origin.

According to Constantine, “Chemical signatures, purity, market share, and 'Asian versus Colombian heroin' may seem dry and technical. It’s the human statistics which really tell the story. Drug Abuse Warning Network figures released Tuesday show a 19% increase in heroin incidents in the nation’s emergency rooms. Heroin overdoses by rock musicians, young stock brokers and models capture today’s headlines. But we’re also hearing about mothers of 'perfect college students who never did drugs’ watching as their brain-dead daughters die, and about the bodies of two 18-year old Orlando young men dumped in an apartment to die by their pusher when they became ill. In the Orlando area alone during the past 15 months heroin is suspected in the deaths of 13 people, five of whom were just teenagers.”

High-purity heroin is particularly dangerous because new users, who often fear needles and intravenous injections initially, can begin using by snorting or smoking the high-purity heroin. Smoking heroin is equally addictive and more expensive. Once addicted snorting or smoking no longer produces the desired effect. Soon the users resort to injection, risking skin abscesses, hepatitis, AIDS-producing HIV, bacterial endocarditis and overdose.

Data collected in hospital emergency rooms, police departments, courts, schools, treatment programs and on the street show tragically that heroin consumption in the United States is on the rise. “Heroin has become more affordable and more glamorous. We are seeing more people snorting heroin, or using heroin coupled with crack or other forms of cocaine and we are at risk of developing a younger generation of heroin addicts. For years we’ve seen a hardcore older population of approximately 600,000 heroin addicts. Today we are seeing 11th and 12th graders turning to heroin. These `initiates’ are, in all likelihood, at the outset of a long, downward spiral into hardcore addiction or death.”

“The DEA recognized the reemerging heroin threat two years ago and developed a five-year strategy to address the problem. This major initiative includes new agents and resources as well as a redeployment of existing assets and a refocused effort in heroin investigations. Two weeks ago, the DEA’s New York Field Division announced the arrest of 21 defendants from the Ortiz/Cintron organization in a joint investigation initiated in January by the New York Drug Enforcement Task Force. This group was distributing approximately 50,000 to 75,000 ten-dollar bags of heroin per week, identified under several brand names including “Fuji Power” and “Far Beyond Imagination" with purity levels measured as high as 94%. Over the next two years we will commit over $11 million to domestic heroin enforcement and additional resources internationally to fight heroin trafficking,” Constantine concluded.


* These figures are based upon DEA’s 1995 Heroin Signature Program (HSP) test results published earlier this month. Each year an in-depth chemical analysis is performed on 600 to 800 samples taken from heroin seizures and purchases made in the United States. As a result of the signature analysis, DEA chemists are able to associate the heroin sample with a heroin manufacturing process unique to a geographic source area. During 1995, more than 860 seized samples underwent signature analysis at DEA’s Special Testing and Research Laboratory in McLean, Virginia.

** DEA’s El Paso Intelligence Center (EPIC) reports an almost 6-fold increase in the number of Colombian couriers who were arrested smuggling heroin into the U.S. in the four-year period from 1991 to 1995, and more than a 10-fold increase of all couriers smuggling Colombian heroin into the United States during the same period.

*The signature for South American heroin was developed in July 1993.

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