Mexico's Sinaloa Cartel has taken control of the US heroin market by elbowing out traffickers of the Asian product, according to a DEA official, but the dynamics of the drug trade on both sides of the border are somewhat more complex.
Douglas W. Coleman, head of the Arizona Division of the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) told Proceso magazine (pdf) that the Sinaloa Cartel has displaced traffickers of Asian heroin in the United States by introducing methods that produce a more refined Mexican product. In the interview, Coleman said this technique had helped the Sinaloa Cartel become the world's most powerful criminal organization, with nearly complete control of the US drug market.
"To take control of the US East Coast market, it changed its product to satisfy local consumers who never used coffee-colored or black heroin, which is what is traditionally produced in Mexico," the DEA agent said.
Seeking to improve their offering, the cartel allegedly brought in Colombian "cooks" (cocineros) to turn their dark heroin into a whiter version using techniques from their home country. This transformation began around two years ago, following which the DEA began seeing a new type of heroin on the market labeled "cinnamon" due to its lighter color.
The Sinaloa Cartel's new product first appeared in the US West Coast, a market it has traditionally dominated. Until then, the cartel had been unable to compete with Asian and Colombian heroin or cocaine traffickers in the eastern region, which extends from Georgia to Maine.
But as demand for Sinaloan cinnamon continued to grow it began appearing in eastern markets where users pay more for their heroin and have traditionally consumed the Asian product. These areas include: New York, Vermont, Massachusetts, Illinois, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Virginia.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Heroin
Two years on, and the Colombian cooks working exclusively for the Sinaloa Cartel have managed to create a heroin that is "nearly as white as the Chinese [Asian] one, which the DEA has always struggled with," Proceso quoted Coleman as saying.
Convinced that the Mexicans' version is as pure as the Asians', East Coast customers tend to pay up to $90,000 per kilogram -- prices the cartel would not fetch further west.
Poppy production has shot up in Mexico as a result, Coleman claimed. Between 2013 and 2014, cultivations rose 62 percent in the state of Guerrero and the "Golden Triangle" region (which includes parts of Chihuahua, Durango and Sinaloa), according US government figures cited by Proceso.
Coleman said he would be "surprised" if the Sinaloans were not already the bosses of the East Coast heroin market, given their ready advantage in expanding eastward.
"The only thing the Sinaloa Cartel is doing is placing a new product on the trafficking routes they already own in the East Coast," the DEA agent said. "That's how they've managed to establish themselves so well with white heroin."
InSight Crime Analysis
While the picture of the US heroin industry painted by the DEA is that of a vertical chain in which Mexican traffickers -- and particularly the Sinaloa Cartel -- manage all stages from production to wholesale, the reality is rather different.
Firstly, Coleman's suggestion that the Sinaloa Cartel has total control over the US heroin market is misleading.
Historically, the heroin trade in the United States has been roughly split down the middle: Mexican organizations dominated the western United States market with their low-grade, darker product, while Colombian groups would supply higher-quality white powder to the eastern region. Today, it is thought that Colombians no longer manage supply as much, and that their heroin is trafficked into the United States by Mexican groups.
Although the Sinaloa Cartel is one of these groups, it is not the sole organization in charge of the trade. In truth, there are actually dozens of small organizations on both sides of the border running the production, trafficking and distribution of heroin to the United States.
Mexican organizations "are not nearly as strong or monolithic as they once were," InSight Crime Co-Director Steven Dudley said in May 26 testimony on the topic before the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The country's major criminal groups have fragmented significantly in recent years as a result of cartel wars and law enforcement efforts. Today, the Sinaloa Cartel is more of a horizontal structure than it is vertical, acting as a kind of franchise for numerous factions with no single leader controlling activities, Dudley told the committee.
SEE ALSO: Sinaloa Cartel News and Profile
Evidence suggests that the US heroin trade is in fact more of a democratic system, with control over different stages divided up between various groups. This was illustrated by the case of the Laredo brothers drug trafficking organization, which moved an average of 14 kilograms of heroin into the United States per month. If we are to believe DEA estimates that Mexico's annual heroin production could be up to 42 metric tons (pdf), there is cause to think that many organizations are making up the total traffic to the United States.
Another example of Mexico's fragmentation mirrored in the heroin trade is the Guerreros Unidos gang -- a splinter group of the Beltrán Leyva Organization based in the major poppy producing state of Guerrero -- which is believed to traffic heroin into Chicago.
"The heroin supply chain appears to be a largely horizontal, diversified operation with multiple actors, and one that is obedient to market forces rather than one or two single vertically integrated distributors," Dudley testified.
It is equally important to look beyond Mexico when analyzing the US drug market. According to DEA figures from 2012, South American heroin (typically Colombian) accounted for 51 percent of the market share, while 45 percent was from Mexico and 4 percent was from South-West Asia (see graph below).
From the DEA's 2015 National Drug Threat Assessment (pdf)
It is possible that these statistics are considerably flawed. According to security analyst Alejandro Hope, "We don't know with any level of precision how [Mexican] heroin production has evolved in recent year[s]," as the information available is too unreliable or inconclusive.
One potential discrepancy is apparent when comparing US heroin seizures and estimates of poppy production in Colombia and Mexico. While the latest DEA stats give the two countries a 50-50 split in heroin seizures, Colombia had only 298 hectares under poppy cultivation in 2013 -- according to United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) (pdf) -- versus the DEA's estimate that Mexico had 17,000 hectares in 2014 (pdf).
There also appear to be internal contradictions in the DEA's calculations: less than two years ago the agency was claiming that South American heroin dominated the US market.
Although it is not unusual for government officials or media to oversimplify their accounts of the drug trade, such narratives can be counterproductive. The complexities of the trafficking system -- particularly Mexico's -- must be fully understood to produce effective strategies against organized crime.