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DEA southwest Asian drug intelligence briefing – November 2002

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  • Southwest Asian drug intelligence briefing
    Published by U.S. Department of Justice – Tuesday 19 November, 2002

    Copyright: Drug Enforcement Administration

    Drug Intelligence Brief

    Southwest Asian (SWA) heroin was the dominant type of heroin sold to drug users in the eastern United States in the 1970s and 1980s; however, it currently accounts for only a small portion of the U.S. heroin supply. The number of street purchases of SWA heroin has declined in recent years, but the purity of heroin from this region remains high.

    Heroin from Southwest Asian sources is smuggled directly to the United States by maritime and air routes. Often air couriers are controlled by Nigerian/West African drug trafficking organizations, as well as by Pakistani, Lebanese, Nepalese, and, in New York, occasionally by Russian and East European trafficking groups. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and Canadian intelligence sources identify Vancouver, British Columbia, a significant entry point for Asian-source heroin—primarily from Southeast Asia, but also including SWA heroin—and Montreal, Canada, as source cities for North America’s eastern heroin markets.


    Opium poppy has been cultivated in the Golden Crescent Region of Southwest Asia and the Middle East for thousands of years. SWA heroin has dominated the world supply of heroin since 1997, and accounted for 72 percent of the world supply in 2000, according to U.S. Government (USG) sources. Europe remains the primary market for heroin from this region.

    Cultivation is centered primarily in Afghanistan, but opium poppy also is cultivated in Pakistan and Lebanon, although at greatly reduced levels that do not currently have an impact on the global heroin supply. Recently released USG estimates indicate that opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan declined severely in 2001. The decline resulted primarily from the ban on opium poppy cultivation decreed in July 2000 by then Taliban leader Mullah Omar for the 2000-2001 growing season. Nonetheless, continuing recent seizures of SWA heroin in Southwest Asia and Europe, including 480 kilograms seized in January 2002 in the Netherlands, indicate that opium stockpiles remain sufficient to meet consumer demand.


    1993 1994 1995 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001
    Afghanistan 685 950 1250 2099 2184 2340 2861 3656 74
    Pakistan 140 160 155 75 85 66 37 11 5
    Source: US Goverment

    Since the July 2000 ban on cultivation, prices for opium, morphine base, and heroin have continued to increase in SWA source areas. In the Nangarhar Province of Afghanistan, the source of most of the SWA heroin seized in the United States, the price of white heroin increased from $579 1 per kilogram in July 2000, to $4,011 per kilogram in April 2001—an increase of nearly 700 percent. Kilogram prices through year’s end were fluid but remained in the $4,000 to $5,000 range. Over the same period, the price of brown heroin, historically the dominant form produced in Afghanistan, also increased in Nangarhar Province from $385 to $2,245 per kilogram.

    Media reporting in September 2001, however, indicated that the Taliban told farmers in Afghanistan that they were now free once again to grow opium poppy. While large-scale cultivation could resume, the amounts reaching the market may be impacted by recent, ongoing military actions in the region.


    Heroin purities at the wholesale and retail levels of the U.S. heroin trade are compared in the chart that follows. The data are derived from two DEA trafficking indicator programs: the Heroin Signature Program (HSP) and the Domestic Monitor Program (DMP).2

    SOUTHWEST ASIAN HEROIN PURITY: 1998-2000 (Percent pure)

    1998 1999 2000
    Wholesale-Heroin Signature Program 76 73 77
    Retail-Domestic Monitor Program 32 44 40

    The HSP looks at the wholesale level of the trade as heroin is smuggled into and throughout the United States, while the DMP focuses on the retail or street level of the drug market. Under the DMP, heroin is purchased quarterly in open-air drug markets in 23 locations around the United States. According to preliminary DMP data, in 2000, street purchases of SWA heroin were made in Atlanta (5), Detroit (5), Washington, DC (5), Chicago (4), New York (3), Baltimore (1), Miami (1), and Newark (1).

    A comparison of purity levels of heroin available on the U.S. drug market from the four major heroin source areas reveals that SWA heroin purities are comparable to those for Southeast

    Asian (SEA) heroin at both the wholesale and retail levels, but remain consistently below South American heroin purities. Street-level purity of SWA heroin declined in 1998 below that of Mexican heroin, which traditionally has had the lowest purity of all source areas. In 1999, SWA heroin purity exceeded that of both SEA and Mexican-source heroin.3


    Heroin Source Area 1998 1999 2000
    South America 79 53 78 51 79 52
    Southwest Asia 76 32 73 44 77 40
    Southeast Asia 72 36 73 42 72 27
    Mexico 42 34 42 27 36 25
    Source: Drug Enforcement Administration

    Researchers at the DEA Special Testing and Research Laboratory classify heroin from Southwest Asia by three production signatures. All three are free-flowing granular powders, but of varying colors and solubility. SWA-A heroin is medium dark brown in color and nearly always in water-insoluble free-base form; it is ingested by smoking or, when mixed with an acid such as lemon juice, by injection. It is of particular interest that the 50 kilograms of heroin seized by the Queens Borough Narcotics officers, New York Police Department, on September 10, 2001, in Queens, New York, was identified as SWA-A heroin with a purity of 53 percent. SWA-B heroin, by contrast, is highly refined, often pure white or light cream in color and virtually always found in the water-soluble hydrochloride salt form, which can be readily injected or snorted. SWA-C heroin is a tan powder that is sold in either the free base form or the water-soluble hydrochloride salt form.

    Most SWA heroin seized in the United States is SWA-B, refined primarily in Afghanistan. Moreover, about half of the recent samples seized at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport from drug couriers originating in Bangkok, Thailand, have been identified as SWA-B heroin. Investigators at the Baltimore-Washington International (BWI) Airport are seeing more seizures of SWA-B heroin; associated evidence indicates that Chicago and Detroit were the final destination for the majority of the shipments.


    Reporting from the DEA Peshawar, Pakistan Resident Office for Fiscal Year (FY) 2001, indicates that the average price of heroin in Afghanistan increased significantly over the past year. For example, the price of white heroin more than quadrupled from $1,200 in October 2000, to more than $5,100 per kilogram in September 2001, while the price of brown heroin jumped from approximately $750 to nearly $3,300 per kilogram during the same period. Similar price increases were noted in Pakistan, whereas heroin prices in Turkey remained stable.


    Source Area White Heroin Brown Heroin
    1st Quarter 4th Quarter 1st Quarter 4th Quarter
    Afghanistan Nangarhar Province $1,209 $5,103 $758 $3,280
    Pakistan Islamabad/Rawalpindi $1,920 $6,200 $1,000 $4,100
    Turkey N/A N/A $4,000-$7,500 $4,000-$7,500

    Nonetheless, intelligence resources indicate that Nigerian/West African heroin traffickers travel from their bases of operation in Bangkok to Pakistan to acquire SWA heroin for $2,000 to $4,000 per kilogram—a price far below the $10,000 to $12,000 per kilogram price in Thailand for SEA heroin of comparable purity.

    U.S. price information for SWA heroin is very limited; only the New York Division—which encompasses the nation’s major heroin consumption and distribution center—identified heroin prices by source region. In New York, the price of SWA heroin ranged from $65,000 to $90,000 per kilogram for the period April through June 2001; the average selling price was $70,000 per kilogram. The New York Division reported that Pakistani traffickers now offer wholesale kilogram prices in the $70,000 range, and in some cases in the $60,000 range. A recent controlled delivery involved 3 kilograms of SWA heroin for $144,000; the $48,000 per kilogram average price was significantly lower than any Colombian heroin price.


    DEA field divisions recently reported that heroin trafficking from Southwest Asia to the United States remains a focus of investigations. Nigerian and West African drug organizations are identified as major traffickers of Asian heroin, most often smuggling the drug via air courier or, increasingly, by mail.

    New York Division FY2001 reporting indicated that increased SWA heroin trafficking activity, coupled with decreasing prices and high purity levels, may impact New York wholesale markets, which have been dominated for the past 8 years by Colombian-source heroin. While Pakistani traffickers are the principal SWA heroin traffickers in New York, Russian and East European traffickers increasingly are involved in the SWA heroin trade, with smuggling routes that extend from Southwest Asia and the Middle East through the Balkan countries and Europe. Indian and Nepalese nationals also are involved in SWA heroin trafficking. Additionally, in New York, traditional organized crime groups are involved in the mid-level wholesale distribution of heroin directly from Southwest Asian sources.

    The Detroit Division identifies Canada, Lebanon, India, and Pakistan as the source areas for SWA heroin in their area of responsibility. SWA heroin often is smuggled directly into the Detroit area via international commercial air from Nigerian sources in Bangkok and Antwerp utilizing body carriers, via mail from Thailand, and overland from Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles. Small quantities of heroin reportedly are smuggled regularly from Canada into the United States.

    In June 2001, the Domestic Heroin Unit (NDAH) surveyed DEA field intelligence elements regarding the status of current investigations that focus on trafficking groups and/or heroin sources of supply connected with Southwest and Southeast Asia. The following chart compares the survey results of SWA investigations with street-level SWA heroin purchases made through the DMP. Of particular interest is the increase in SWA heroin purchases between 1999 and 2000; only nine SWA heroin purchases were made in 1999 compared to 25 in 2000.


    Field Division DMP Heroin Purchases 1 Current Cases 2
    to June 2001

    1999 2000
    Atlanta 1 5 0
    Boston 0 0 0
    Caribbean 0 0 0
    Chicago 1 4 0
    Dallas 0 0 1
    Denver No Response — — —
    Detroit 4 5 2
    El Paso 3 0 0 0
    Houston 0 0 4
    Los Angeles 0 0 3
    Miami 0 1 1
    Newark 0 1 3
    New Orleans 0 0 0
    New York 0 3 7
    Philadelphia 1 0 1
    Phoenix 0 0 1
    San Diego 0 0 0
    San Francisco 0 0 3
    Seattle 0 0 0
    St. Louis 0 0 0
    Washington, DC 2 6 2
    TOTAL 9 25 26

    1 In 1999, heroin from Southwest Asia comprised 1 percent of qualified samples purchased through the DMP. By contrast, 3 percent of DMP 2000 samples were identified as SWA. On average, the DMP collects approximately 700 to 800 qualified samples per year.

    2 Cases involving SWA heroin trafficking organizations reported to NDAH in response to June 2001 survey of DEA Field Divisions.

    3 The El Paso Field Division joined the DMP in mid-1999.

    An example of a major operation targeting Middle Eastern heroin traffickers is Operation MAGIC CARPET. This 4-year, multiagency SWA heroin investigation was initiated by the Detroit Field Division and is judicially pending. The Lebanese violators were responsible for transporting, trafficking, and smuggling multiple kilogram quantities of SWA heroin into the United States from Lebanon in religious prayer rugs. In July 2000, 34 targets of the investigation were indicted in Detroit. A takedown occurred in August 2000 that resulted in the arrest of 21 targets. The remaining indicted targets reside in foreign countries with the exception of two individuals who were extradited from Canada on October 4, 2001.


    Heroin from Southwest Asia will remain a potent factor in the world drug market. Opium poppy cultivation and opium and heroin production may increase as production in Afghanistan resumes. Should the current military actions and continued international presence within the country effectively reduce opium poppy cultivation in future years, cultivation and production may migrate to countries bordering Afghanistan. Europe will remain the primary retail market for SWA heroin. At the same time, U.S. heroin trafficking groups will seek to acquire high-purity material, including that from Southwest Asian sources, at low cost in order to maximize their profits. Decreasing prices, high purity, and increased trafficking of SWA heroin in New York may affect Colombian domination of heroin markets in the area.

    1 Unless otherwise noted, all prices are expressed in U.S. dollars.
    2 Heroin signature analysis is conducted through DEA’s Special Testing and Research Laboratory. Through this program, heroin samples are subjected to in-depth chemical analysis to determine, among other things, the purity and geographic source area of the heroin. DEA chemists are able to associate the sample with a heroin production process, or signature, unique to a particular geographic source area.

    This report was prepared by the Domestic Heroin Unit (NDAH), Office of Domestic Intelligence, in coordination with DEA Divisional Intelligence Groups, the Domestic Strategic Intelligence Unit, and the Europe, Asia, Africa Strategic Unit, Office of International Intelligence. The information in this report is current as of January 2002. Comments and requests for copies are welcome and may be directed to the Intelligence Production Unit, Intelligence Division, DEA Headquarters, at (202) 307-8726.






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Forums Drugs DEA southwest Asian drug intelligence briefing – November 2002