U.S. customs agents in Nogales announced Thursday a record heroin seizure, leaving no doubt: Heroin is back in style and in full force.
The 47-pound load of Mexican black-tar heroin agents found hidden in a car Monday is the kind that's fueling the habits of teenagers in Phoenix, police say. And the availability of cheap heroin is growing.
Since Oct. 1, Nogales agents have seized more heroin than in any full federal year, with three months left to count.
A large investigation by Phoenix police early this year explains why: Investigators noticed young people between the ages of 16 and 22 were the most frequent users. And they were shooting up, not smoking it.
"It was shocking to me they were all so young, because when I started these cases years ago, we'd see people 35 or older and really destitute, down-and-out types. These kids were driving up in nice cars," said Lt. Vince Piano, an investigator on Phoenix's drug squad.
One was a 23-year-old woman who had an infant baby and had been hooked since she was 14, he said.
Black-tar heroin isn't just hip, it is cheap. A high costs as little as $10. Many of the young users told Piano they came from well-off families and got hooked on their parents' prescription painkillers, which today cost four times as much as heroin on the street.
Adding to the drug's lure are the climbing street prices of methamphetamine and cocaine, caused by a crackdown on smugglers of both drugs by authorities on both sides of the border, local and federal drug investigators say.
Authorities across the country have reported a spike in heroin seizures and use. Arizona has always been known more as a capital of marijuana smuggling, distribution and use, but Monday's enormous bust showed that's changing.
[h3]The bust and its scope [/h3]
Monday's seizure happened when a Mexican man drove a Volkswagen Jetta up to the border crossing in downtown Nogales early Monday afternoon. He had valid documents, but when the customs agent noticed something unusual about the car, the driver got nervous. During a detailed follow-up inspection, agents found the drugs hidden in secret compartments in the back bumper and trunk.
Agents took $1.2 million worth of heroin.
It was an eye-opener, not just in size but in method. Typically, Mexican drug cartels smuggle heroin is small amounts over the border. Texas customs agents report finding heroin molded into the soles of shoes or hidden in ice chests.
The 47 pounds amounts to one-tenth of all the heroin seized in an entire year in all of Mexico, where the opiate poppy grows. It's more than what was seized by customs agents in west Texas for each of the past four years, and nearly four times all the heroin seized at the busy Laredo crossing for last year.
But Laredo shot up from 12 pounds in the year ending Sept. 30, 2007, to 57 pounds for the nine months since. By this week, Nogales agents had seized 225 pounds, more than double all the heroin seized throughout Arizona last year and approaching the amount stopped in Southern California, where nearly half the black tar typically crosses the border.
"We are seeing a spike," said Lt. Rocky Quejada, who oversees a statewide drug task force. "Arizona is the path of least resistance with the pressures being felt in California and Texas."
He credits border efforts there with making it harder to smuggle heroin across. But escalating warfare among cartels south of the border over prime smuggling routes, and between cartels and the Mexican army, has made the less bloodied Sonora-Arizona crossing more attractive, too.
[h3]Spreading violence? [/h3]
That violence does not look like it will migrate to the streets of Phoenix or Tucson soon, said Quejada and Anthony Coulson, the DEA assistant special agent in charge in Tucson.
Coulson said heroin supply is more tightly controlled than marijuana, which has been the root of bloody gang-on-gang shootouts in Arizona streets. As long as cartels agree to pay a set shipment rate to each other to smuggle heroin on their routes, that sort of violence is unlikely to erupt here.
Instead, as more Arizona residents get hooked on the increasingly potent black tar, they will need to find money to support their habit, and that means more break-ins and robberies, Quejada said.
[h3]Mexican production [/h3]
U.S. authorities attribute the growing supply of heroin in the U.S. to increased production and lower eradication of poppies in Mexico.
The poppies used to make black tar grow in the mountainous region of Sinaloa, Durango and southern Sonora.
The latest figures available from the National Drug Intelligence Center show that Mexican heroin production rose from 8 metric tons in 2005 to 12.7 tons in 2006. About 95 percent of it made it into the United States.
A U.S. State Department report noted the Mexican government last year destroyed half as many poppy fields as two years ago. In recent years Mexico's focus turned to cocaine shipments and marijuana farms.Mexico seizes tiny amounts of homegrown heroin, mostly in Sonora, Chihuahua or Mexico City because it's often hidden in air or truck cargo.
It's hard to stop because profitable amounts can be shipped in small, easy-to-hide quantities. Trafficking is run by loose networks of small-scale farmers, processors and traffickers.
And it continues to get into the United State in bigger volumes.
"It's a border-wide phenomenon," Coulson said. "We've seen a dramatic increase in heroin seizures here and in California."