Thursday, November 02, 2017
A Direct Line: How a glut of cheap, powerful heroin grown in Mexico is delivered more than 2,000 miles to Lancaster County
6 September 2017
How a glut of cheap, powerful heroin grown in Mexico is delivered more than 2,000 miles to Lancaster County
By Michael Deibert
(Read the originals story here)
They stare out silently from the photographs as they were in life, but they have crossed over to a plain from which there is no return.
Megan Anna Hummer, of Landisville, smiling and playing with her dog, died of a heroin overdose at age 31. She was living in a recovery home at the time.
“Iron Mike” Stauffer, tattooed and homeless on the streets of Lancaster city, began using heroin as a 16-yearold in Ephrata and died at 36 this summer.
Elizabeth Loranzo, a Lancaster School of Cosmetology graduate, had gotten clean, relapsed and died of an overdose at 25, leaving behind a 9-month-old son and a fiance.
The rolling farmlands of Lancaster County might seem a world away from the rugged hills of northern Mexico, but the ravenous appetite for drugs here has made southeastern Pennsylvania a lucrative market for a product that’s sale continues to fuel violence in America’s southern neighbor and despair on Pennsylvanian streets.
The surge in demand for heroin has coincided with shifts in the distribution network that allow for cheaper, more powerful forms of the drug to be delivered more quickly via brokers working for cartels to small-town neighborhoods from coast to coast.
In the most noteworthy change in recent decades, Mexican drug cartels sneaking heroin through legal points of entry have disrupted and overtaken the traditional supply chain, which once originated in the poppy fields of Afghanistan.
“Our heroin used to come from Afghanistan, and it was expensive to get it here,” Lancaster County District Attorney Craig Stedman said. “Now it comes from Mexico, and it’s a lot cheaper. The heroin we have is predominantly coming from Mexican cartels.”
Mexico’s Golden Triangle, an imposing, mountainous region where the states of Sinaloa, Durango and Chihuahua meet, produces both high-grade poppies, from which heroin is derived, and marijuana.
The influence of the organizations that benefit from the trade — and two cartels in particular — can be felt even here, nearly 2,000 miles from the Mexican border.
Meet the suppliers
Responsible for delivering most of the heroin and other drugs flowing into Pennsylvania are two Mexican drug cartels: the Sinaloa Cartel and the Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación, or CJNG.
“It’s safe to say the majority of drugs coming in today are chiefly from the Sinaloa Cartel and the CJNG,” said Gary Tuggle, the special agent in charge at the Drug Enforcement Agency’s Philadelphia field division, under whose jurisdiction Lancaster County falls.
The Sinaloa Cartel was founded by the now imprisoned Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera and Héctor Luis “El Güero” Palma Salazar after the collapse of the Guadalajara Cartel in the late 1980s.
The cartel operated a cocaine distribution hub in Lancaster County until the arrest of its county-based drug runners in 2007. The runners flew drugs into the Smoketown Airport, lived in homes in Manheim Township and operated a local carpet cleaning business as a front as they ran drugs up and down the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
When the runners were arrested, authorities found $1.8 million in cash and $160,000 in drugs in their Manheim Township homes, as well as $2 million worth of drugs in a car that was stopped on the turnpike just north of Lancaster County.
The CJNG is Mexico’s fastest-growing drug trafficking organization, holding sway over a multistate empire that runs nearly unbroken from the Pacific Coast to the Gulf Coast.
The CJNG was largely formed by the foot soldiers of Sinaloa Cartel boss Ignacio “Nacho” Coronel Villarreal after he was killed in a July 2010 drug battle with the Mexican army.
The cartel began as something of a spinoff of Sinaloa and has since emerged as a force all its own.In its September 2011 coming out, the CJNG dumped 35 corpses, believed to be members of the rival Los Zetas Cartel, into rush-hour traffic in a suburb of the Gulf Coast city of Veracruz.
In 2015, the CJNG ambushed and killed 15 police officers. Last year, it shot down a military helicopter with rocketpropelled grenades, killing five soldiers.
Though many of the group’s chieftains have been captured in recent years, the CJNG’s cofounder, a former police officer named Nemesio “El Mencho” Oseguera Cervantes, remains at large.
The CJNG is the dominant criminal faction in Jalisco, Colima, Michoacán, Nayarit, Guanajuato, Guerrero, Morelos and Veracruz and is believed to have its eyes on an expansion.
A report earlier this month in the Mexican newspaper Periódico Noroeste quoted anonymous sources from an investigative body affiliated with Mexico’s Ministry of Interior who claimed the CJNG would launch an offensive in coming months to take over vast swaths of the Sinaloa Cartel’s territory.
Cheaper and faster delivery
The traditionally dominant drug trafficking organizations from Mexico have begun to fracture as drug lords are slain or captured by the government or one another, and the highly linear system of drug distribution in Pennsylvania and elsewhere has had to adapt.
The characteristic control that Mexican drug-trafficking organizations had exercised over everything from the production of marijuana and poppies to the processing, manufacturing, transportation and distribution of the product down to the retail level has shifted.
“We believe the Sinaloa Cartel is still involved in providing cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin, fentanyl and other drugs to this area, but it’s being shipped directly rather than going to a distribution hub like Chicago,” said Tuggle, of the Drug Enforcement Agency. “We strongly believe that pattern is going to increase.”
Law enforcement officials say cartel brokers will now enter a zone and offer their services to indigenous drug-trafficking groups.
Those groups themselves, in turn, have become so atomized and businesslike that some will “rent” territory to other organizations in which they can sell their product while the local criminal organizations collect a cut of the profits.
This has proven to be the case in North Philadelphia, for example, in areas where traditionally Latino gangs have subleased territory to African-American drug organizations.
These shifting dynamics have produced a marked change in both the users and the dealers, police say.
“Back in the day, the stereotypical heroin addict was older,” said Lancaster city police Chief Keith Sadler, who worked with law enforcement in Philadelphia for 27 years before taking the reins to head Lancaster’s police force in 2008.
“But it’s no longer just an old junkie drug. And that heroin was, like, 5 to 10 percent (pure) back then. Now it’s almost pure. And half of these dealers now are addicts themselves. Further up the food chain. Now you see a lot of these guys are using their own product.”
And despite the takedown of many major cartel figures in Mexico, the purity of the drug gets better as the prices go down.
“You don’t have the corner trafficking and as many shootouts over the corner,” Stedman said. “But what we’re seeing now are drug rip-offs and people using violence because they feel people owe them money for drugs, home invasions and things like that.”
Losing the war?
The decapitations and capture of so many cartel leaders has had little impact on the flow of drugs into the United States. And they have failed to tamp down the violence associated with the drug trade in Mexico itself.
“The kingpin strategy does not work in anti-narcotics operations if the aim is to stop drug trafficking and related activities,” said Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, an associate professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. Correa-Cabrera has studied cartel activity in Mexico for more than a decade.
“When a kingpin is removed, he’s replaced by someone else, violence increases, and there has not been really any visible impact in the drug trade,” Correa- Cabrera said.
Once powerful regional cartels such as Los Zetas and the Gulf Cartel fracture, but others rise to take their place.
And the drugs keep flowing.
In March, authorities dismantled an Allentown-Reading drug trafficking ring that was smuggling large quantities of heroin, cocaine and meth into the area from Mexico.
Police seized $2.2 million worth of heroin and meth when they stopped and searched a tractor-trailer with California plates in Reading, leading to the arrest of six people, five of whom are U.S. residents.
In May, five members of the so-called Aryan Strikeforce, a white-supremacist organization based in Pennsylvania, were indicted by a Harrisburg grand jury for conspiring to transport methamphetamines, firearms and machine gun parts.
In June 2015, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania handed down a 108-count indictment charging 37 people allegedly associated with the Cartel de los Laredo, a kind of mini-cartel based in the city of Cuernavaca in the state of Morelos, with money laundering and drug charges stemming from the importation of heroin to Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Illinois and elsewhere.
One often overlooked aspect of the drug trade is the role that legitimate financial institutions in the United States and elsewhere have played in facilitating it.
Entities such as Bank of America, Wachovia (now part of Wells Fargo) and HSBC were found by U.S. investigators to have been used to launder billions of dollars of drug profits. The latter was ordered to pay a record $1.92 billion for laundering Mexican drug money in 2012.
And for every kilo of heroin seized, many more are making it through the legal points of entry between the two countries and into communities across Pennsylvania.
Building a wall along the Mexico border, such as the one proposed by President Donald Trump, likely would have little impact on the trade in Lancaster County or anywhere else in the United States, officials said.