Heroin use in the United States increased substantially during the past decade, with more than a million people nationwide believed to be addicted to the drug, according to Rogelio E. Guevara, the Drug Enforcement Administration’s chief of operations.
The number is up from an estimated 630,000 addicts in 1992, aided in large part by an increase in the amount of heroin being produced in and shipped out of Colombia.
Mr. Guevara recently told a House committee that the use of heroin was cited more than any other illicit drug, except cocaine, during visits to U.S. hospital emergency rooms between 1996 and 1999.
“Where does all this heroin come from? That depends on where you live,” he said. “If you live west of the Mississippi, chances are good that most of the heroin sold on your streets comes from Mexico. East of the Mississippi, most of it comes from Colombia.”
Colombian cocaine has been a huge commodity in the United States for years, but drug traffickers in Colombia are now trading in heroin, as well putting the Colombians in competition with smugglers from Southeast and Southwest Asia, who used to dominate the market here. Cumulatively, U.S. users consume about 14 to 19 tons of heroin per year.
Although Colombia produced far less heroin than its Asian counterparts, Mr. Guevara said its product predominates in the U.S. market. He said the DEA Heroin Signature Program, which identifies the source of heroin seized at U.S. ports and on the street, found that 56 percent of the drug seized by federal authorities in 2001 came from Colombia.
Mr. Guevara said that by the early 1990s, opium poppy cultivation in Colombia was expanding rapidly, and in recent years, poppy cultivation and heroin production have become an integral part of the Colombian drug trade. He said that both operations are dominated by independent trafficking groups that function outside the control of the major cocaine organizations.
Colombian heroin traffickers, he said, have established themselves as major sources of supply in the Northeast, the largest heroin market in this country.
“The increase in Colombian heroin is worrisome for a number of reasons,” he said. “One is that the Colombian heroin sold on American streets is more potent, which results in far more visits to hospital emergency rooms.
“Greater potency also means that users are able to inhale it, making it far more attractive to potential users than the traditional process of injecting heroin, with all of the health-related and cosmetic problems typical of using hypodermic needles,” he said. “The ability to inhale heroin is certainly one reason for the drug’s growing popularity.”
He said another worry associated with Colombian heroin is the close relationship between drug trafficking and terrorism.
“Intelligence information indicates the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia [FARC], which is a State Department-designated foreign terrorist organization, charges a ‘tax fee’ from heroin traffickers who obtain heroin from areas under FARC control,” he said. “The FARC is also suspected of charging a tax to farmers who cultivate poppy plants in areas they control.”
Mr. Guevara said FARC and the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia derive about 70 percent of their operating revenues from narcotics trafficking.
He said that during the early 1990s, the bulk of the South American heroin smuggled into the United States was transported via couriers on direct commercial flights from Colombia to the international airports in Miami and New York. Most of the couriers arrested in Miami were en route to New York, he said, and their most common method of smuggling was ingestion of small quantities of heroin wrapped in latex.
Heroin also was concealed inside hollowed-out shoes and luggage, in the lining of clothes and inside personal items, he said.
Mr. Guevara said that since the mid-1990s, Colombian heroin traffickers have diversified. They still come into the United States through airports in Miami, New York, San Juan, Puerto Rico, and other cities on commercial flights from Colombia, but they have expanded their smuggling routes to include Argentina, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Panama, Mexico, Venezuela and several countries in Central America and the Caribbean.
In addition, he said, heroin traffickers have begun to send bulk shipments of heroin to the United States using cargo planes, container ships and go-fast vessels. Seizures of 33 to 66 pounds of heroin are common, he said, and seizures of up to 110 pounds of heroin occur, but less frequently.
”Heroin-trafficking organizations will continue to challenge the flexibility and resilience of both domestic and international law-enforcement agencies,” Mr. Guevara said.