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Heroin's Journey Traces Coke Trail: Colombia Joins Trade

Boston Herald, Sept. 14, 2005

by Laura Crimaldi and O'Ryan Johnson / Common Disgrace

Once shuttled into New England from Burma, Thailand or Afghanistan, a cheaper, purer heroin is now being sent to the Hub from Colombia via established cocaine trafficking routes, drug enforcement agents say.

"They had routes they used for cocaine and just like any other organization, if it was successful, why not use it for another drug," said Tony Pettigrew, a spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Administration's New England Field Division.

While drug enforcement agents say there is no single heroin trafficking route, smack typically makes its way to Massachusetts through Florida and then New York City.

Smugglers stash heroin in cargo shipments, send it in the mail or fill condoms with it and swallow them. Once the heroin is within U.S. borders, it arrives at its final destination by motor vehicle, said state police Lt. Dennis Brooks, who is assigned to the Middlesex District Attorney's Office.

"What we're seeing is more heroin at a cheaper price and the purity is some of the highest because it's not being cut," said Brooks.

The number of Massachusetts residents being treated for heroin addiction has climbed from 44,000 to 56,000 in recent years, he said, attributing the spike to the OxyContin craze, which is addicting people to opiates at a younger age.

Heroin hits the street in a rock form that is broken down into a powder and sold for as little as $4 to $6 per bag. The DEA classifies heroin into four categories depending on where it comes from: South American, Mexican, Southeast Asian and Southwest Asian.

The presence of South American heroin manufactured in Colombia has been on the rise since 1993, and is most prevalent in New England and along the East Coast, according to the DEA's Web site.

The South American heroin is brought in onboard commercial flights by couriers who carry about a pound to 2 pounds at a time. That region's heroin sellers broke into an already saturated Northeastern drug market by offering higher purity at lower prices than the competition, the DEA states.

Mexico has been exporting its own brand of brownish heroin, as well as black tar heroin, to the states for decades. The drug exporters' border proximity allows them to evade agents by filling single customers' orders and keeping amounts that cross through checkpoints in weights smaller than a kilogram.

This practice also prevents agents from making large drug seizures. The Mexican product typically moves into the United States through migrant workers and illegal immigrants driving private vehicles. But while the potent drugs routinely land on U.S. soil, so far the dealers have not been able to penetrate the lucrative East Coast markets.

Far less prevalent is heroin from markets in Thailand, China, Afghanistan and Pakistan, which follows tortuous, roundabout trails through African and East Asian ports before entering the United States.

Although Chinese and Thai heroin was popular in the late 1980s and early 1990s, shipments from that region have declined since the indictment and extradition of more than a dozen drug lords to the United States. Still, the "war on drugs" remains a drawn-out battle.

"Everything we do is being thwarted," said former Boston-based undercover agent Paul E. Doyle. "It's like putting your finger in the dam. The only way we are going to stop it is if we make it a priority. It's in a holding pattern."

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