Drug Trafficking - Heroin

asia opium purity southwest

Heroin users represent the smallest group using a major drug: 3.7 million lifetime and 314,000 past-year users in 2003. (See Table 3.3 in Chapter 3.) For traffickers, heroin is a stable commodity. In its 1999 INCSR, the State Department summed up the attractiveness of heroin for traffickers as follows:

Though cocaine dominates the U.S. drug scene, heroin is lurking conspicuously in the wings.… Heroin has a special property that appeals to the drug trade's long range planners: as an opiate, it allows many addicts to develop a long-term tolerance to the drug. Where constant cocaine or crack use may kill a regular user in five years, a heroin addiction can last for a decade or more, as long as the addict has access to a regular maintenance "fix." This pernicious property of tolerance potentially assures the heroin trade of a long-term customer base of hard-core addicts.

Heroin users have been increasing based on data collected by SAMHSA, although at a slowing rate. The number of lifetime heroin users increased annually at a rate of 8.9% between 1990 and 1995 and a rate of 3.4% between 1995 and 2003. According to the ONDCP, 12.9 metric tons of heroin were used in the United States in 2001, up from 11.4 tons in 1995.

Purity and Price

The purity of the typical kilogram of heroin increased between 1998 and 2001. (See Table 6.9.) At the same time, however, purity levels have dropped at the ounce and the gram level to 53% from 57% for the average ounce and from 55% to 51% for the average gram. Despite the drop, these are very high purity products in comparison with the average of 27% in 1991 and 7% in 1987.

The rise in purity has been tied to the increased availability of high-purity South American heroin. Colombian

Heroin purity, 1998-2001
[National average in percent]
SOURCE: "Heroin: 1998-2001 Purity Data," in Illegal Drug Price/Purity Report, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, April 2003

Quantity 1998 1999 2000 2001
Kilogram 68 63 64 69
Ounce 57 53 55 53
Gram 55 53 52 51

TABLE 6.10
Heroin price range, 1998-2001
SOURCE: "Heroin," in Illegal Drug Price/Purity Report, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, April 2003

Amount and source 1998 1999 2000 2001
Mexican black tar $20,000–$100,000 $20,000–$100,000 $15,000–$100,000 $15,000–$65,000
South America 50,000-160,000 65,000-160,000 55,000-120,000 60,000-125,000
Southeast Asia 80,000-180,000 70,000-180,000 120,000-175,000 90,000-120,000
Southwest Asia 55,000-190,000 55,000-190,000 70,000-190,000 35,000-115,000
Unidentified source N/R 90,000-150,000 48,000-200,000 35,000-180,000
Mexican black tar $400–$6,500 $300–$6,000 $400–$7,000 $350–$6,400
South America N/R 2,000-12,000 1,200-9,000 2,000-5,500
Southeast Asia N/R 2,000-9,000 2,000-9,000 2,600-9,000
Southwest Asia N/R 3,800-8,000 7,000-12,000 N/R
Unidentified source N/R 2,400-11,000 1,200-8,500 1,000-10,500
Mexican black tar $80–$600 $50–$500 $40–$500 $50–$400
South America N/R 50-400 50-600 60-300
Southeast Asia N/R 100-600 100-500 90-500
Southwest Asia N/R 175-450 N/R N/R
Unidentified source N/R 75-600 90-900 50-500
N/R = Not reported

drug traffickers have been trying to break into the heroin market by producing a very high-quality drug. This has forced heroin producers from other areas to improve the purity of their product. Purer product has led to a change in the way many people take the drug. Injecting heroin into an artery is the most effective way to get the most out of low-purity heroin. Higher-purity heroin has made it easier to smoke or snort the drug, which has also made heroin more attractive to potential users who feel uncomfortable using needles. The potential of being infected by HIV is also removed. Despite these "advantages," an estimated three in five heroin users continue to inject the drug.

Heroin is more lucrative for dealers than most other drugs. While a kilogram of cocaine might fetch between $10,000 and $35,000, a kilo of heroin could be worth as much as $180,000. (See Table 6.10.) According to the DEA, the price of a gram of heroin ranged from $50 to $500 in 2001. A relative beginner in heroin use will inject between five to ten milligrams of heroin. A gram thus delivers between one hundred and two hundred doses. Street prices for a single dose run $10 to $20 per bag, and a kilogram of heroin converts into a small fortune. Compared with earlier years shown, prices are generally down despite improving purity levels. The Mexican "black tar" variety of heroin is called that because of its color; heroin from other sources range from white to brown in coloration.

Heroin Production and Distribution


After the leaves of the poppy fall off, only the round poppy pods remain. Heroin production begins by scoring the poppy pod with a knife. A gummy substance begins to ooze out. This material is then scraped off later and collected. The process, thereafter, is described as follows on a CIA web page (From Flowers to Heroin, CIA Homepage for Kids, Central Intelligence Agency, http://www.cia.gov/cia/publications/heroin/flowers_to_heroin.htm):

Once the opium gum is transported to a refinery, it is converted into morphine, an intermediate product. This conversion is achieved primarily by chemical processes and requires several basic elements and implements. Boiling water is used to dissolve opium gum; 55-gallon drums are used for boiling vessels; and burlap sacks are used to filter and strain liquids. When dried, the morphine resulting from this initial process is pressed into bricks. The conversion of morphine bricks into heroin is also primarily a chemical process. The main chemical used is acetic anhydride, along with sodium carbonate, activated charcoal, chloroform, ethyl alcohol, ether, and acetone. The two most commonly produced heroin varieties are No. 3 heroin, or smoking heroin, and No. 4 heroin, or injectable heroin.

This generic process produces heroin that may be 90% pure. Variations in the process are introduced as the heroin is diluted, "cut" to increase its bulk and thus also the profits. The pure heroin is mixed with various substances including caffeine, baking soda, powdered milk, and quinine.


Opium poppies are intensely cultivated in three regions of the world—Southeast Asia, Southwest Asia, and Mexico and South America. In 2003 (see Table 6.5) Southwest Asia, particularly Afghanistan, accounted for 80.7% of known opium gum production. Opium gum is the intermediate from which heroin is made. Afghanistan's production was 3,656 metric tons in 2000, then dropped to seventy-four tons in 2001 as a consequence of steps taken by the Taliban to suppress the trade. According to the INCSR, production went up again to 1,278 metric tons in 2002 after the Taliban fell, and more than doubled to 2,865 metric tons in 2003.

The DEA conducts the Heroin Signature Program (HSP). The name of the program comes from the fact that each producing region uses a unique process for deriving heroin from opium and the heroin thus has a unique "signature."

Under this program, heroin seized by federal authorities is analyzed in order to determine the purity of the heroin and its origin. In its most recent formal work-up of these data, Drug Intelligence Brief: Heroin Signature Program: 2002, the agency determined that 80% of all heroin seized in 2002 came from South America, 9% from Mexico, 1% from Southeast Asia, and 10% from Southwest Asia. (See Table 6.11.) The DEA's analysis is that HSP results can be projected to determine the actual origin of all heroin sold in the United States. The implication is that while Latin America represents about 3% of opium gum production, it supplies most of the heroin used here. Much Asian heroin is used in the country in which it was produced, in nearby countries, or in Europe. The government's concentrated effort to interdict drug supplies from "south of the border" are informed by such analyses, which, according to the United Nation's World Drug Report, show that most of the major drugs come to the U.S. from the south rather than from Asia.


The bulk of heroin from Latin America comes from Mexico and Colombia. Mexico produces a variety of heroin called "black tar" because it looks like roofing tar. It was once considered inferior to Colombian and Asian heroin, but it has reached a level of purity high enough so that it can be snorted or smoked. Mexican heroin is targeted almost exclusively to the American market. The long Mexico–U.S. land border provides many opportunities for drug smugglers to cross. Female couriers are used more frequently than males. Mexican heroin is smuggled in cars, trucks, and buses and may also be hidden on or in the body of the smuggler. Many smugglers send their drugs by overnight-package express services.

Many Colombian coca traffickers have been requiring their dealers to accept a small amount of heroin along with their normal deliveries of coca. This has allowed the Colombian producers to use an existing network to introduce a very pure grade of heroin into the U.S. market. Much of the growing Colombian heroin production is sent through Central America and Mexico by smugglers traveling on commercial airline flights into the United States. These smugglers hide the drugs in false-sided luggage, clothing, hollowed-out

TABLE 6.11
Heroin seizures by source region, 1977-2002
[In percent]
SOURCE: "Figure 4. Heroin Signature Program Data: 1977-2002 Geographic Source Area Distribution (in percent) Based on Net Weight of Heroin Seized and Analyzed," in Drug Intelligence Brief: Heroin Signature Program 2002, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, March 2004, http://www.usdoj.gov/dea/pubs/intel/04005/04005.html (accessed March 1, 2005)

Mexicoa Southeast Asia Southwest Asia South America
1977 89 9 2 NA
1978 82 15 3 NA
1979 48 13 51 NA
1980 38 11 51 NA
1981 36 10 54 NA
1982 34 14 47 NA
1983 33 19 48 NA
1984 32 17 51 NA
1985 39 14 47 NA
1986 42 22 36 NA
1987 42 25 33 NA
1988 29 46 25 NA
1989 27 56 17 NA
1990 21 56 23 NA
1991 21 58 21 NA
1992 10 58 32 NA
1993 8 68 9 15b
1994 5 57 6 32
1995 5 17 16 32
1996 20 8 20 52
1997 14 5 6 75
1998 17 14 4 65
1999 24 10 6 60
2000 17 8 16 59
2001 30 7 7 56
2002 9 1 10 80
a The percentages are based on samples for which a signature was identified. In 2002, approximately 90 percent of the samples were classified.
b The signature for heroin from South America was not developed until July 1993; therefore, this figure represents only partial-year data.
Not Applicable (The signature for heroin from South America was not developed until 1993.)

shoe soles, or inside their bodies. The Colombia-based heroin traffickers have established distribution outlets throughout the eastern half of the United States.


At one time, perhaps half the heroin shipped into the United States came from Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan—a region referred to as the Golden Crescent. Currently, however, only a small percentage is thought to come to the United States from this area; most of the Southwest Asian production is shipped to Europe.

Opium is Afghanistan's largest cash crop, and now, in the wake of the Taliban's fall, the country appears to be succeeding again in capturing the lion's share of the world's opium market.

By 2000, after strong pressure from the United States, the Pakistani government had nearly eliminated opium cultivation. Iran also grows very few opium poppies, perhaps as a result of an Iranian government crackdown on heroin users. It is generally believed that Iran's opium production provides barely enough for native drug users and that Iran imports heroin from neighboring Afghanistan.

Drug users in Southwest and Central Asia use some of the opium grown in the Southwest Asian region, but most of the region's opium is shipped to Turkey to be transformed into heroin in secret laboratories.

According to the INCSR, about 80% of the heroin from Southwest Asia is shipped to the European market from Turkey along the "Balkan Route." This supply line originates in Afghanistan and Pakistan, passes through Turkey, and splits into branches. The northern route carries heroin to Romania, Hungary, the Czech and Slovak Republics, and points north. The southern branch crosses through Croatia, Slovenia, the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia, Greece, and Albania to the countries of Western Europe. Every country along the route now faces serious domestic drug problems. Turkish drug syndicates, which control distribution in a large number of European cities, dominate most of the Balkan Route drug business.

The growth of corruption and criminal organizations in Russia has led to a growth of drug trafficking and drug abuse there. Russian drug traffickers transport Southwest Asian heroin through Central Asia to Russia and on to Europe. Russian authorities have noted a huge increase in domestic drug use in Russia and estimate that there are more than two million users in the country, although the figure could well be higher.


Burma supplied an estimated 14% of the opium produced in the world in 2003, according to the INCSR. Its share of world production has decreased annually since the mid-1990s, when it outproduced Afghanistan. The opium produced in Burma, Thailand, and Laos (the Golden Triangle) has traditionally gone by sea from Thailand to Hong Kong or Taiwan, where it was processed into heroin for local use or shipped on to the United States. Trafficking through China is on the increase, and much Golden Triangle opium is being processed into heroin in that country. A growing amount of heroin has been moving through Singapore and Malaysia, despite their strict drug laws.


According to the State Department in the INCSR, "Nigeria remains a worldwide hub of narcotics trafficking and money laundering activity. Nigerian organized criminal groups dominate the African drug trade, and transport narcotics to markets in the United States, Europe, Asia, and Africa." The nation's continuing political corruption and turbulence have made it easier for criminal organizations to develop and use Nigeria as a transshipment point for Asian heroin.

Before 1997 Nigerian drug traffickers paid couriers between $2,000 and $5,000 (what an average Nigerian would earn in sixteen years) to transport a pound or two of heroin into the United States. In the late 1990s traffickers began using Express Mail Services (EMS) to ship heroin, concealing it in such items as pots and pans, children's books, and decorative figurines. The use of EMS is far cheaper than couriers, and packages can be mailed anonymously, with less chance of tracing them back to the trafficker if the heroin is discovered. Nigerian traffickers often use Thailand as a base of operation for their heroin trafficking. Most parcels seized originate in Thailand.

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