HomeNewsAnalysisSinaloa Cartel’s Takeover of US Heroin Market Questionable
ANALYSIS

Sinaloa Cartel's Takeover of US Heroin Market Questionable

CRIMINAL MIGRATION / 26 MAY 2016 BY MIMI YAGOUB EN

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).

16-05-26-DEA-2012-seizures

 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.

share icon icon icon

Was this content helpful?

We want to sustain Latin America’s largest organized crime database, but in order to do so, we need resources.

DONATE

What are your thoughts? Click here to send InSight Crime your comments.

We encourage readers to copy and distribute our work for non-commercial purposes, with attribution to InSight Crime in the byline and links to the original at both the top and bottom of the article. Check the Creative Commons website for more details of how to share our work, and please send us an email if you use an article.

Was this content helpful?

We want to sustain Latin America’s largest organized crime database, but in order to do so, we need resources.

DONATE

Related Content

EL CHAPO / 18 NOV 2015

Following allegations that Sinaloa Cartel head Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman flew his way to safety in Venezuela, InSight Crime created an…

EL MENCHO / 27 SEP 2019

Representatives of Mexico’s Jalisco Cartel have spoken out on behalf of their shadowy leader to demand that residents of a…

MEXICO / 11 OCT 2018

Authorities in Mexico and the United States have yet to identify who is behind the construction of a recently dismantled…

About InSight Crime

THE ORGANIZATION

Unraveling the Web of Elites Connected to Organized Crime

27 JUL 2021

InSight Crime published Elites and Organized Crime in Nicaragua, a deep dive into the relationships between criminal actors and elites in that Central American nation.

THE ORGANIZATION

InSight Crime’s Greater Focus on US-Mexico Border

20 JUL 2021

InSight Crime has decided to turn many of its investigative resources towards understanding and chronicling the criminal dynamics along the US-Mexico border.

THE ORGANIZATION

Key Arrests and Police Budget Increases Due to InSight Crime Investigations

8 JUL 2021

With Memo Fantasma’s arrest, InSight Crime has proven that our investigations can and will uncover major criminal threats in the Americas.

THE ORGANIZATION

Organized Crime’s Influence on Gender-Based Violence

30 JUN 2021

InSight Crime investigator Laura N. Ávila spoke on organized crime and gender-based violence at the launch of a research project by the United Nations Development Programme.

THE ORGANIZATION

Conversation with Paraguay Judicial Operators on PCC

24 JUN 2021

InSight Crime Co-director Steven Dudley formed part of a panel attended by over 500 students, all of whom work in Paraguay's judicial system.