Mexico's heroin industry has had a bullish few years thanks, in part, to the drug's emergence as a popular choice of teenagers.
Mexican traffickers have expanded from hubs in California and Texas into the Midwest and the Atlantic Seaboard, narcotics experts say.
And more heroin is coming into California from Mexico this year, say law enforcement officials, who already have confiscated more of the drug in six months than they did in all of 2010.
One traffic stop in Fresno County alone yielded 24 pounds of black tar heroin, the single-largest heroin bust in the Valley in years.
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Mexican traffickers have revamped heroin's image from the inner-city drug of yore, with its junkies and needles, into a narcotic that can be snorted or smoked, appealing to high school youths.
A coincidental factor has given the drug gangs a tail wind: The epidemic abuse of painkillers has ebbed in the United States, and youth now hunger for a cheaper high.
"We've heard around the country of changes away from prescription drugs, because they are either more expensive or more difficult to obtain, and a movement toward heroin, which is less costly," said Gil Kerlikowske, a former Seattle police chief who is the White House drug czar.
From Oxy to heroin
Cameron Hicks, 25, is an example of someone who followed the path described by Kerlikowske. Hicks was introduced to painkillers when he was prescribed Oxycontin for a sports injury as a Buchanan High School sophomore, but eventually he became addicted to heroin.
By the time he graduated from high school, Hicks said, he had used heroin. He was an addict ("Death is not enough to keep someone from getting high for even a moment," he says) but lost access to Oxycontin prescriptions after rehabilitation stints.
The street price for heroin is about one-third of the $40 to $50 that an Oxycontin pill costs.
"You have to use [heroin] because there is nothing else available," he said.
And he almost did die from a heroin overdose at a Los Angeles gas station. He was taken to an emergency room where he was revived.
He has been clean for three years and lives in Boise, Idaho.
Drug treatment centers locally are seeing slight rises in heroin users, but often as a secondary drug to methamphetamine, which is the primary addiction.
Statistics provided by WestCare California, a local substance abuse treatment center that has more than 1,000 clients in the Fresno area, show that 11% of its admissions in 2010-11 were for heroin or other opium-based drugs, compared with 9.6% for 2009-10. For both years, methamphetamine abusers represented more than 40% of WestCare's Fresno clients.
Most often, heroin is the second drug of choice to methamphetamine, said Lynn Pimentel, deputy administrator for WestCare.
She said some people using prescription painkillers revert to heroin, but "they minimize the heroin because it's not their drug of choice."
Even though Valley numbers for heroin use are not sharply rising, nationally a a different trend is evolving.
A federal study found that California had up to 45,000 heroin users in 2008-09. Seven years earlier, the number was about 6,000 on the high end, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
Nationally, there were 180,000 people aged 12 or older who used heroin for the first time within the previous 12 months, a 2009 federal report on substance abuse admissions says.
The number of first-time heroin users was significantly higher than the average annual number from the previous six years. Estimates from 2002 to 2008 ranged from 91,000 to 118,000 per year, said the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
Those numbers could double, triple or soar higher, law enforcement officials say, because the price is low and younger people are following paths similar to the one Hicks took: experiment with prescription painkillers, then switch to heroin because it's relatively cheap.
"The dollar drives you to heroin," said Alex Stalcup, a Bay Area substance abuse recovery doctor who once worked in a Haight-Ashbury clinic in San Francisco. "There is quite a dramatic uptick in heroin use, the price is down and the quality is up."
Fresno County sheriff's Lt. Rick Ko predicts that heroin abuse is just beginning a surge: "It used to be older people in their 30s, 40s and 50s who were doing it. Now, you have a much younger population getting into it."
Stalcup, whose New Leaf Treatment Center has treated young people from all over California, including Fresno and Clovis, agrees with Ko.
"We haven't seen as much heroin since the '70s, when we lost a whole generation, and after 35 years of treatment only one in eight is off the drug if they are still alive," he said. "If you make the kind of harsh assumption that the Oxycontin kids will gravitate toward the needle, then we are going to make the '70s look like a holiday."
For decades, less-refined Mexican heroin was a poor cousin to white Asian heroin, and later Colombian heroin. Mexico's black tar heroin gets its name from its dark color and gooey consistency, caused by less-exacting processing. By the 1990s, Mexican traffickers saw opportunity passing them by and took action to catch up.
"They brought in experts, chemists, folks from Asia who taught them how to produce better heroin," said a U.S. law enforcement official based in Mexico City, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity for security reasons. "You saw purity levels climb from 40% to 50% up to 90%."
He said Mexican heroin now might hold two-thirds of the U.S. market.
"You're seeing it everywhere. It's cheap. The market base is teenagers. They are the target consumers," the official said.
Nationally, the number of heroin users is now beyond 800,000, the highest number that was previously reported in 1999, said Bill Ruzzamenti, the Fresno area's leading anti-drug expert as executive director for the Central Valley High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area.
That number now is projected as 1 million to 1.2 million, he said.
The price will vary with demand , but in Fresno, heroin is about $11,600 per pound while other parts of the Valley are a little cheaper, he said. On the high side, the price is about $18,000 per pound in other parts of California, he said.
Around the country, Ruzzamenti said, black tar heroin could be double California's prices.
The U.S. State Department said in March that Mexico has surpassed Myanmar as the world's second-largest poppy cultivator and produces 7% of the world's heroin, mostly for the U.S. market. The State Department and the United Nations say that Mexican poppy production has nearly tripled since 2007, though Mexico strongly disputes that estimate.
What's indisputable is that drug syndicates that produce black tar and brown heroin in Mexico's Sierra Madre mountains are pushing aggressively into areas where they haven't been active before.
Law enforcement officials warn that heroin has gained a foothold in suburban Atlanta and is the fastest-growing drug in northern Ohio.
Prosecutors indicted 20 people in Toledo on May 10 on charges of conspiring to bring Mexican heroin to the city.
"You've had a couple of selected cartels move forward very aggressively into the eastern United States," said Dave Gaddis, a former chief of operations for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration who left the DEA in April and now heads a security consulting firm, G-Global Protection Solutions.
Even in the West, where Mexican heroin has been present for decades, law enforcement officials say they're seeing more of it than ever before.
The U.S. government once was enthusiastic about bringing poppy to Mexico. During World War II, it encouraged Mexico to plant the opiate-producing flowering plant to ease a shortage of morphine for wounded U.S. soldiers.
Afterward, the poppy stayed in the Sierra Madres of western Mexico. It now stretches from the mountainous junction of Sinaloa, Chihuahua and Durango states in the north down into Nayarit, Michoacan, Guerrero and Oaxaca states.
Poppy grows best in warm, temperate climates with low humidity. In Colombia and Mexico, it's cultivated on steep mountain slopes.
Poppy fields need irrigation, yet a heavy rainstorm can wipe them out.
Guerrero state, which is perhaps best known for the tourist beach resort Acapulco, has among the densest concentration of poppy in Mexico, and the prosperity of the drug trade is evident.
Even along remote dirt roads, most houses have satellite dishes on their roofs and recreational all-terrain vehicles parked out front. Farmers ride the vehicles to poppy fields deep in the mountains.
"The peasant farmers get ahead but those who really profit are the middlemen and the owners of the labs," said a Mexican army officer who escorted a reporter and a photographer deep into the mountains of Guerrero state to observe soldiers eradicating poppy fields.
Despite a broad military presence in the region, the army hasn't destroyed any of the simple field laboratories that can turn the latex gum first into opium, then morphine and finally heroin.
"We haven't found a single laboratory," said Brig. Gen. Benito Medina Herrera, the top military officer in this western region of Guerrero.
Asked where the laboratories were, he said: "In Cuernavaca, in the capital, in the United States."
No matter where the heroin labs are, smugglers who take the narcotic across the United States are growing bolder in their tactics. Smuggling vehicles sometimes work in tandem with decoy trailing vehicles, Ruzzamenti said.
They even drive in military fatigues or with families to keep law enforcement from singling them out.
When police spot a suspicious car, "the trail vehicles will intercede to get the police to go after them. They'll ram the police car or race by it at 100 miles an hour," he said, describing an incident that happened near Redding. "We've even had them shoot at the police."