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Drug Enforcement Administration
The Availability of Southwest Asian Heroin in the Unites States

The Availability of Southwest Asian Heroin in the United States

May 1996



Recent seizures of suspected Southwest Asian (SWA) heroin in the United States have given rise to speculation that increasing amounts of SWA heroin now are available domestically. However, investigative intelligence and indicator programs suggest that it is too soon to determine if these seizures represent a concerted effort by SWA heroin trafficking organizations to expand their operations and market share in the United States.

Overview of Recent Seizures

Three significant seizures of SWA heroin have occurred in the United States in the past 5 months, two of which resulted from an investigation of one SWA heroin trafficking organization:

  • First, on December 8, 1995, 68 kilograms of SWA heroin base (approximately 58% pure) were seized in Lubbock, Texas. According to the defendant, the heroin was destined for the New York-New Jersey area.
  • The other seizure related to this investigation occurred on December 11, 1995, when 24 kilograms of SWA heroin base (57.2% pure) were seized in New York City.
  • On March 20, 1996, approximately 55 kilograms of suspected SWA heroin were seized in Spokane, Washington. The heroin was smuggled into New York City concealed in a shipment of art handicrafts from Karachi, Pakistan. Signature analysis of this seizure is pending. (Signature analysis is a chemical process to determine the geographic source area of heroin.)

These are the first major seizures of SWA heroin in the United States since August 1994, when 14 kilograms were found buried in San Bernardino County, California. The 68-kilogram seizure in Lubbock, Texas, is the largest U.S. seizure of SWA heroin and the sixth largest U.S. seizure from any source area. It should be noted, however, that these recent domestic seizures resulted from investigations of major traffickers in Southwest Asia. No significant seizures of SWA heroin have been made domestically as a result of random or "cold" interdiction efforts. This indicates that there is not a ready supply of SWA heroin in the United States.

SWA Heroin Trafficking in the United States

From 1980 through 1987, SWA heroin was the predominant form of heroin available in the United States, as evidenced by its prominence in DEA indicator data and the large number of investigations that were conducted against SWA heroin traffickers. However, since that time, heroin from Southeast Asia has dominated the domestic market. This shift occurred for two primary reasons. First, drug law enforcement investigations successfully dismantled much of the smuggling and trafficking operations of SWA heroin organizations in the United States. Second, heroin production in Southeast Asia had increased dramatically during that time frame

Nevertheless, large, well-organized SWA heroin trafficking groups and small, independent traffickers remain capable of supplying heroin to the U.S. market. All available indicators, however, show that the largest organizations trafficking SWA heroin continue to supply established distribution networks throughout Europe, the primary market for SWA heroin. The United States remains a secondary target for these traffickers. Most of these organizations store heroin supplies in secure European locations and only send shipments to the United States after a buyer is identified and has paid a partial payment. Generally, the balance due is payable upon delivery in the United States.

Most SWA heroin trafficking groups in the United States are cohesive and difficult to penetrate because they are based on ethnic, familial, religious, and tribal relationships. The traffickers and wholesale distributors generally are cautious, rarely transacting business with outsiders. SWA heroin trafficking and distribution generally are more prevalent in cities with large populations from Afghanistan, Greece, Lebanon, Pakistan, and Turkey, such as Chicago, Detroit, and New York City.

Worldwide Potential Net Opium Production, 1989-1995
  1989 1990 1991 1992 1993 1994 1995
Afghanistan 585 415 570 640 685 950 1,250
India -- -- -- -- 66 82 71
Iran -- -- -- -- -- -- --
Pakistan 130 165 180 175 140 160 155
Burma 2,430 2,255 2,350 2,280 2,575 2,030 2,340
China -- -- -- -- -- 25 16
Laos 380 275 265 230 180 85 180
Thailand 50 40 35 24 42 17 25
Colombia -- -- -- -- -- -- 65
Lebanon 45 32 34 -- 4 -- --
Guatemala 12 13 17 -- 4 -- --
Mexico 66 62 41 40 49 60 53
Total Opium 3,698 3,257 3,492 3,389 3,745 3,409 4,157

Domestic Heroin Availability and Abuse Indicators

Two programs used by the Intelligence Division to monitor heroin availability in the United States are the Heroin Signature Program (HSP) and the Domestic Monitor Program (DMP). The HSP employs an in-depth chemical analysis to determine the source region for all heroin seizures made at U.S. ports of entry (e.g., international airports and border crossings) and a random sampling of seizures and purchases made domestically. In general terms, the HSP provides a glimpse of heroin trafficking at the wholesale level.

The DMP, on the other hand, is an intelligence program focusing specifically on retail-level heroin distribution in the United States. Through the DMP, retail-level heroin purchases are made in 20 domestic metropolitan areas. These heroin samples are analyzed for price, purity, adulterants, diluents, and source region. Although these programs have several inherent limitations, they can be used to help form a general picture of the domestic heroin situation and to identify emerging trends - for example, both programs were useful in tracking the emergence of South American heroin in the United States.

The HSP, the DMP, seizure data, and abuse indicators all suggest that SWA heroin market share and purity in the United States remain low. According to the 1994 HSP, Southeast Asia was the prevalent source area for heroin seized in the United States, accounting for 57 percent of the total net weight of heroin analyzed within the program. South American heroin accounted for 32 percent, SWA heroin accounted for 6 percent, and Mexican heroin accounted for 5 percent. Preliminary figures for the HSP for 1995 indicate that - as a result of the two large seizures effected in December - the proportion of SWA heroin rose to 16 percent, still less than the proportion for both Southeast Asian and South American heroin. The representation of SWA heroin in the HSP for 1996 likely will remain close to the 1995 level due to the large seizure made in March 1996.

Purchases of SWA heroin made through the DMP continue to be minimal. For example, of the 660 heroin exhibits purchased in 1995, only 4 were determined to be of Southwest Asian origin with an average purity of 26.5 percent. (DMP figures for 1995 are preliminary.) By comparison, during the late 1980's, the number of SWA heroin exhibits in the DMP ranged from 30 to 36 per year, out of a total of between 230 and 325 purchases per year.

Drug abuse and treatment officials report that the overwhelming majority of heroin users either are injecting or, to a lesser extent, inhaling the drug. To date, only a very small percentage of users are smoking it. According to reporting from the Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN), smoking as a route of heroin administration occurred in only 2.1 percent of all heroin-related hospital emergency room episodes during 1994.

This fact poses a serious question regarding the SWA heroin base seizures listed previously. Because heroin base is not water-soluble (i.e., it cannot be injected nor inhaled like heroin hydrochloride (HCl) and can only be smoked), it is unclear what was to be done with these large shipments. Although heroin base can be converted for use by injection, it requires the user or distributor to perform a crude and not widely known procedure that is rendered unnecessary by the ready availability of heroin HCl at the retail level. It is not known if the heroin base was to be converted to heroin HCl in clandestine laboratories within the United States. Between 1978 and 1985, 8 clandestine heroin processing laboratories were seized in the United States by DEA. At most, only 2 of these laboratories simply were converting heroin base to heroin HCl. There have been no heroin laboratory seizures since 1985.


Although the recent seizures are significant, it is too soon to conclude that SWA heroin traffickers are attempting to expand their share of the heroin market in the United States. All investigative intelligence and indicator data show that the availability of SWA heroin in the United States remains minimal. Some of these intelligence indicators are described below.

  • To date, the investigations involving Southwest Asian traffickers have yielded heroin provided on demand and have not generated intelligence that SWA heroin can be supplied in bulk quantities on a regular basis. It is possible that the limited availability of SWA heroin reported through drug law enforcement operations may be the result of the greater focus on South American heroin and a general inability to penetrate clannish Southwest Asian trafficking organizations in the United States.
  • The recent seizures consisted of relatively low-purity heroin base, a product that would be difficult to market domestically.
  • The lowpurity of SWA heroin generally is not competitive with the high-purity heroin from Southeast Asia and South America.
  • SWA heroin accounts for only 16 percent of the heroin analyzed by the HSP, despite the large quantities seized recently.
  • The exhibits consisting of SWA heroin are a small fraction of the total purchases made through the DMP.

Nonetheless, domestic SWA heroin trafficking warrants increased attention for several reasons. First, opium production in Southwest Asia has been increasing since 1990, implying that more heroin from that region will be available for smuggling to the United States, assuming stable heroin supplies and consumption rates in Europe. Second, declining heroin prices in Europe and higher prices in the United States may prompt SWA heroin traffickers to target the U.S. market. Third, the recent seizures prove that large quantities of heroin can be smuggled successfully into the United States.

This report was prepared by the Domestic Unit of the Strategic Intelligence Section. For additional information, please contact the Intelligence Production Unit, Intelligence Division, DEA Headquarters, at (202) 307-8726.

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