EL DURAZNO, Mexico — Mexico's heroin industry has had a bullish few years, and for traffickers the outlook is as uplifting as the scarlet, orange and yellow poppy flowers from which the narcotic is processed.
What was once a problem largely confined to hubs in California and Texas, Mexican traffickers have expanded into the Midwest and the Atlantic Seaboard, narcotics experts say.
Using savvy marketing tactics, they've also repositioned heroin commercially, revamping its image from the inner-city drug of yore, with its junkies and needles, into a narcotic that can be snorted or smoked, appealing to suburban and even rural high school youth.
A coincidental factor has given the drug gangs a tail wind: The epidemic abuse of painkillers has ebbed in the United States, and youth now hunger for a cheaper high.
"We've heard around the country of changes away from prescription drugs, because they are either more expensive or more difficult to obtain, and a movement toward heroin, which is less costly," said Gil Kerlikowske, a former Seattle police chief who's the White House drug czar.
The U.S. State Department said in March that Mexico has surpassed Myanmar as the world's second largest poppy cultivator and produces 7 percent of the world's heroin, mostly for the U.S. market. The State Department and the United Nations say that Mexican poppy production has nearly tripled since 2007, though Mexico strongly disputes that estimate.
What's indisputable is that drug syndicates that produce black tar and brown heroin in Mexico's Sierra Madre mountains are pushing aggressively into areas where they haven't been active before.
Teenagers in Albuquerque, N.M., Milwaukie, Ore., Fenton, Mich., Troy, Ill., La Porte, Ind., and Mentor, Ohio, have died from apparent heroin overdoses in the past nine months. Law enforcement officials warn that heroin has gained a foothold in suburban Atlanta and is the fastest-growing drug in northern Ohio. Prosecutors indicted 20 people in Toledo on May 10 on charges of conspiring to bring Mexican heroin to the city.
A police detective told Charlotte, N.C., council members this week that the city ranks No. 5 among U.S. cities in black tar heroin use.
"You've had a couple of selected cartels move forward very aggressively into the Eastern United States," said Dave Gaddis, a former chief of operations for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration who left the DEA in April and now heads a security consulting firm, G-Global Protection Solutions.
Even in the Western United States, where Mexican heroin has been present for decades, law enforcement officials say they're seeing more of it than ever before.
"The heroin numbers have skyrocketed," said William Ruzzamenti, a former federal anti-narcotics agent who now heads a federally funded regional drug task force in California's Central Valley. "Just in our little area, we've already surpassed all seizures from last year, and we're not even to July yet."
At about $15 a hit, heroin is a lot cheaper than prescription painkillers such as oxycodone (known by its brand name, OxyContin), which can cost $50 to $80 a tablet on the black market. Both opiates, they have similar highs.
The U.S. government once was enthusiastic about bringing poppy to Mexico. During World War II, it encouraged Mexico to plant the opiate-producing flowering plant to ease a shortage of morphine for wounded U.S. soldiers.
Afterward, the poppy stayed in the Sierra Madres of western Mexico. It now stretches from the mountainous junction of Sinaloa, Chihuahua and Durango states in the north down into Nayarit, Michoacan, Guerrero and Oaxaca states.
For decades, less-refined Mexican heroin was a poor cousin to white Asian heroin, and later Colombian heroin. Mexico's black tar heroin gets its name from its dark color and gooey consistency, caused by less-exacting processing. By the 1990s, Mexican traffickers saw opportunity passing them by and took action to catch up.
"They brought in experts, chemists, folks from Asia who taught them how to produce better heroin," said a U.S. law enforcement official based in Mexico City, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity for security reasons. "You saw purity levels climb from 40 to 50 percent up to 90 percent."
He said Mexican heroin now might hold two-thirds of the U.S. market.
"You're seeing it everywhere. It's cheap. The market base is teenagers. They are the target consumers," the official said.
Poppy grows best in warm, temperate climates with low humidity. In Colombia and Mexico, it's cultivated on steep mountain slopes. Poppy fields need irrigation, yet a heavy rainstorm can wipe them out.
"The less sun that hits the poppy plant, the better," said Col. Dante Castillo Calleja, a Mexican army officer who escorted a reporter and a photographer deep into the mountains of Guerrero state to observe soldiers eradicating poppy fields.
Hovering at the edge of a sloping field shrouded in late-afternoon mist, Castillo plucked a poppy to demonstrate the walnut-sized seedpod that contains the latex precious to narcotics traffickers.
"You need a delicate hand to do this," he said, demonstrating how poppy farmers score the seedpods with light incisions, returning after a few hours to wipe away the latex that oozes out. "They often use children to make the incisions. Also women."
Soldiers whacked the brittle poppy stalks with sticks, knocking them flat, while others used machetes to destroy hoses set up as an impromptu irrigation system from a nearby stream.
Guerrero state, which is perhaps best known for the tourist beach resort Acapulco, has among the densest concentration of poppy in Mexico, and the prosperity of the drug trade is evident. Even along remote dirt roads, most houses have satellite dishes on their roofs and recreational all-terrain vehicles parked out front. Farmers ride the vehicles to poppy fields deep in the mountains.
"The peasant farmers get ahead but those who really profit are the middlemen and the owners of the labs," Castillo said.
Despite a broad military presence in the region, the army hasn't destroyed any of the simple field laboratories that can turn the latex gum first into opium, then morphine and finally heroin.
"We haven't found a single laboratory," said Brig. Gen. Benito Medina Herrera, the top military officer in this western region of Guerrero. Asked where the laboratories were, he said: "In Cuernavaca, in the capital, in the United States."
No matter where the heroin labs are, smugglers who take the narcotic across the United States are growing bolder in their tactics. Smuggling vehicles sometimes work in tandem with decoy trailing vehicles, Ruzzamenti said.
When police spot a suspicious car, "the trail vehicles will intercede to get the police to go after them. They'll ram the police car or race by it at 100 miles an hour," he said. "We've even had them shoot at the police."
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McClatchy Newspapers 2011