The Sinaloa Cartel has taken control of New York’s heroin market, replacing Colombian and Asian groups as the principal supplier of the drug, according to an investigation by the Dromomanos collective, winner of the Ortega y Gasset Journalism Awards.
Jeen Blake, a 40-year-old truck driver, drove from Queens, New York to Riverside, California. The cross-country trip, which took at least 42 hours, had an extremely profitable end: deliver $750,000 in exchange for 15 kilos of heroin.
Blake, an employee of the company Good Guys Transport Corporation, spent a week driving. His truck was filled with the soles of shoes in which some of the drugs were hidden. The rest was concealed in square packets located in secret compartments. After driving 4,800 kilometers, the driver entered New York this past August 26, without knowing that he was being monitored as part of a special operation by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the state police.
The plan was to meet the head of the company, Dorian Cabrera, at a Long Island parking lot and hand over the merchandise. After he reached the spot and both of them entered the trailer, agents surprised them. In addition to the drugs, the agents found more than $300,000 in cash. In Cabrera’s office, they discovered another $190,000 along with some precious gems. Both men were accused of drug possession and intent to distribute. According to James Hunt, Acting Special Agent in Charge of the DEA's New York Division, the drug shipment had a street value of $9 million.
“We believe that the drugs entered through New Mexico, were brought to California and then on to New York," said Bridget Brennan, New York's special narcotics prosecutor. "They move in circles. There is so much money involved that it is worth the effort; they travel on routes that they think are safer. Even if they lose a significant amount en route, there’s always much more.”
According to US investigators, the Sinaloa Cartel has taken control of the US heroin market. Although authorities are closely watching them, the criminal group's product has displaced Colombia's and Afghanistan's from the market, and is also looking to extend its distribution networks into other US states.
Present in More Than A Thousand US Cities
According to the DEA, 50 percent of heroin sold in the US is produced in Mexico, between 43 and 45 percent comes from Colombia, and the rest from Asian countries. Almost all of it is supplied by Mexican cartels.
In an interview, Special Prosecutor Brennan pointed directly to the Sinaloa Cartel as the organization supplying the New York market and the rest of the country. The most recent report by the Department of Justice (DOJ) indicates that Mexican drug traffickers have a presence in 1,286 cities in the US. In less than 10 years, Mexico has overtaken Colombia and countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan as a leader in the US drug market. Currently, Mexico is the second biggest producer of opium and marijuana in the world, according to the most recent report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
New York has been one of the cities most affected by the Mexican cartels controlling the heroin market. Currently, it is suffering a surge in consumption of heroin the likes of which have not been seen since the 1970s. Brennan said this was the result of an increase in the heroin supply since the end of 2008, when groups like the Sinaloa Cartel began producing the drug.
Mexico has some 10,500 hectares of opium crops, according to the most recent estimate from the US Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP).
“When there is a large offer of drugs on the market, there is a greater demand," Brennan said. "The supply creates the demand. And since there is a large supply of heroin coming from the border region, there is a major addiction problem in the US right now.”
With the Sinaloa Cartel controlling the heroin routes -- which according to US authorities are the same as the traditional cocaine and marijuana routes -- New York has become a gateway and a base for the drugs distributed in the northeast and along the Eastern Coast.
“The heroin we seize is no longer just destined for distribution in New York, but also in other states like Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Vermont. New York has become a hub [a storage and distribution center],” said Brennan.
Some 35 percent of heroin seizures in the US have occurred in this city. The biggest seizure in the past five years took place in 2013, with 356 kilos seized. Between January and May 2014, 98 kilos were seized -- an increase on the 63 kilos seized in the same period last year.
According to the most recent report by the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas (HIDTA) program, which looks closely at New York and New Jersey, the distribution bases for heroin are located on the outskirts of the city.
“Trenton and Camden serve as the biggest distribution centers and also represent significant heroin markets," the report says. "Albany also serves as a regional center, with people traveling to neighboring states like Vermont, Massachusetts and other rural areas north of New York to buy heroin.”
Extending its Tentacles
The proliferation of Mexican heroin has had a big impact in Vermont. There Governor Peter Shumlin declared a health emergency last January due to a 770 percent increase in the consumption of opiates since 2000. What began as an oxycodone and prescription pill problem has turned into a heroin epidemic, with heroin-related deaths from overdosing doubling in the past year.
According to Hunt, the DEA special agent, when oxycodone prescriptions became more difficult to acquire, the Mexican cartels took advantage of the opportunity to substitute that drug with heroin, which is much cheaper and more addictive.
“The Mexicans are filling up the market. They are intelligent businessmen with a poisonous product. The heroin of today is cheaper, more abundant and more potent than it was 20 years ago,” he said during a press conference in September.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Heroin
In 2008, the Mexican heroin supply increased, and so did its quality. In previous decades, it was common to find so-called black tar heroin in the US, a brownish drug of poor quality. However, in the past few years, Mexican heroin has been primarily white and its effect is stronger. It is estimated that the purity of the heroin that currently circulates on New York streets is between 40 and 60 percent. During the epidemic of the 1970s, the purity was not above 10 percent.
A kilo of pure heroin can produce more than 50,000 doses after being cut with chemicals like strychnine and quinine, or substances like sugar, chalk and borax. Once the purity of the kilo has been reduced, it can be sold in the streets for more than half a million dollars.
In the streets of New York and the surrounding areas, various groups control heroin sales. Although the drug comes from Mexico, once it is in the city, it falls into many hands.
“We have seen Russians, Eastern Europeans, Colombians and Mexicans. It is not exclusive to one group,” said the prosecutor.
A month after the truck with 15 kilos of heroin was discovered, a group of Dominicans, headed by the 40-year-old Jose Dejesus, was detained in the Bronx as they were cutting 10 kilos of the drug and packing it carefully into small white envelopes that had labels with names like “Sin City,” “Prada,” “Pinky Dinky” and “Audi.” In the apartment, authorities found hundreds of thousands of envelopes that were ready to be sold throughout the northeastern US for a cost of between $6 and $10. There were also masks, coffee filters and various products used for drug processing.
“How do the drugs get from the person who transports them from California to this organization in the Bronx? It’s an open question. There is probably just one link in the chain, and there may even be a direct connection between those who bring large quantities of heroin to New York and those that distribute it in envelopes in the streets. There are countless organizations, but the Dominicans continue to lead the distribution in the city,” said the antinarcotics prosecutor.
For the cartels, said the official, it is better to work with the local, already established mafias and, that way, everyone makes money. During the heroin epidemic of the 1970s, the majority of the heroin in New York was Asian, and since it came from so far away it was controlled by just one organization that was also in charge of its distribution: the Italian organization known as La Cosa Nostra.
“Now, with so much heroin coming from the border, the distribution is not so centralized. Everyone has a share,” he said.
*This article was reprinted and translated with permission from Jose Luis Pardo and Alejandra S. Inzunza. Follow them on Twitter at @Dromomanos, and see more of their work at https://www.dromomanos.com. See Spanish original of this article here. The authors of this article won the National Journalism Prize in 2013 and the Ortega y Gasset Journalism Award in 2014, for reports from the Drug Trafficking in America series, which were published in El Universal.