Heroin industry growing in Arizona
by JJ Hensley - Dec. 9, 2011 10:15 PM
The Arizona Republic
Arizona has earned a well-deserved reputation as a nationwide hub for
marijuana smuggling and distribution, with nearly 50 percent of the
pot smuggled into the U.S. coming through the state, but authorities
say smugglers are increasingly adding heroin to the mix.
The results of that shift are starting to show up in hospitals and
emergency rooms around the state.
The trend was enough to catch the attention of federal authorities,
who noted in the Justice Department's annual drug-market assessment
that estimates of Mexican heroin production rank that country behind
only Afghanistan as the top producers in the world, leading to an
increase of Mexican heroin in U.S. markets where the drug had never
It also has helped push heroin and other opiates past cocaine and
amphetamines as the top drug-related reason in Arizona for emergency-
room admissions and inpatient hospital discharges, according to
statistics kept by the state health department, a 50 percent increase
in the last five years.
"Heroin seizures and use are up in Arizona and across the country,"
said Major Brian Wilcox, head of the Arizona Department of Public
Safety's narcotics bureau. "The southwest border area is a large
trans-shipment area. Heroin is currently being smuggled by pedestrian
foot traffic across the border point of entries. It is then collected
at stash houses and trans-shipped across the country."
In many ways, the trend is not surprising.
As Mexican drug-trafficking organizations have become the established
owners of smuggling routes into the United States, they have
diversified their shipments from marijuana to include people and
other drugs, according to law-enforcement officials.
"They already have those generational ties, the infrastructure, the
gatekeeper at the border. Why not add another profitable product to
their business?" said Ramona Sanchez, an agent with the Drug
Enforcement Agency in Phoenix.
"The golden triangle is Sinaloa, Chihuahua and Durango. Intelligence
is showing they're sprucing up poppy-cultivation farms out there,"
Sanchez said. "The Sinaloa cartel has taken the stronghold on poppy
cultivation. The Sinaloa cartel has had the Nogales-Arizona corridor
for years. This is the cradle of heroin cultivation and smuggling
that comes out of Mexico."
The trend has been evident in recent police activity in Arizona:
Last month, federal authorities announced they had shut down a ring
that smuggled $33 million of narcotics through Arizona each month,
including heroin. Investigators seized 158 pounds of heroin when they
shut down the operation.
In June, a Pinal County sheriff's deputy working on a task force made
a traffic stop near the city of Maricopa that resulted in the
discovery of more than 100 pounds of black-tar and white-powder heroin.
In May, three Maricopa County Sheriff's Office employees were among a
dozen suspects arrested on suspicion of participating in an operation
that moved about $56,000 worth of heroin through the Valley each week.
Investigators suspect that the heroin the sheriff's deputies are
accused of moving was cultivated on a ranch in northern Mexico and
moved to stash houses in the Valley for distribution in Arizona and
other areas. Some of the heroin seized in a raid that took down the
ring was discovered in the oil pan of a red Chrysler, according to
Small amounts of heroin can be profitable, and small seizures rarely
More than 1.5 million kilograms of marijuana was seized along the
southwestern border last year, according to Justice Department
statistics, compared with about 900 kilograms of heroin.
"That's why you probably don't hear about (heroin seizures) as much,"
said Lt. Steve Bailey, a Maricopa County sheriff's deputy and member
of a multi-agency drug task force.
Drug-related inpatient discharges and emergency-room visits
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