Joseph D. Keefe
Special Agent in Charge
Special Operations Division
Drug Enforcement Administration
Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy and Human Resources
June 30, 2000
Note: This document may not reflect changes made in actual delivery.
Mr. Chairman, Members of the Subcommittee: I appreciate this opportunity to appear before the Subcommittee today to discuss the issue of drug trafficking along the Southwest Border. I would like first to thank the Subcommittee for its continued support of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and overall support of drug law enforcement. My prepared testimony will provide you with an objective assessment of the law enforcement issues surrounding the drug threat posed by international drug trafficking organizations operating from Mexico. My oral remarks today will focus on the Mexican Heroin trade and our response to this threat.
The dedicated men and women of the DEA are committed to improving the quality of life of the citizens of the United States. The agency directs and supports investigations against the highest levels of the international drug trade, their surrogates operating within the United States, and those traffickers whose violence and criminal activities threaten towns and cities across the country. These investigations are intelligence-driven and frequently involve the cooperative efforts of numerous other law enforcement organizations.
Mexico based drug trafficking organizations pose some of the greatest challenges to law enforcement agencies in the United States. For years, we have watched with concern as powerful organized crime syndicates based in Mexico began to dominate the distribution of drugs throughout our country. Through the dedicated efforts of Federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies, we now have a clearer picture of how these drug lords direct the sale of drugs within the U.S., how they collect their billions of dollars in drug profits, and how they arrange for the assassination of witnesses in both Mexico and the United States.
In the recent past, drug traffickers from Mexico had maintained dominance in the western part of the United States, and in some Midwest cities. Today, the Drug Enforcement Administration, along with other law enforcement agencies, has developed evidence leading to indictments demonstrating that associates of organized crime groups based in Mexico have established themselves on the East Coast of the United States, thus becoming significant participants in the nationwide drug trade.
The organized crime syndicates in Mexico have grown significantly more powerful and wealthy over the last six years as their position in the cocaine trade in the U.S. has been enhanced by the Colombians' payment in cocaine, for providing transportation services for drug loads. After receiving as much as half of every shipment they smuggled into the U.S. for the Cali Cartel, drug lords like Amado Carrillo-Fuentes, the Arrellano-Felix brothers, and Caro-Quintero managed to establish their own enormous distribution networks in the western and Midwestern United States. These trafficking organizations have amassed billions of dollars in drug profits annually and now rival their Colombian counterparts in power, wealth, and influence.
Overview of Narcotics Smuggled along the U.S./Mexican Border:
Nearly one half of the cocaine available in the United States is transported across the Southwest border. Typically, large cocaine shipments are transported from Colombia, via commercial shipping, fishing and "go-fast" boats and off-loaded in Mexico. The cocaine is transported through Mexico, usually by trucks, where it is warehoused in cities like Guadalajara, Tijuana, or Juarez, which are operating bases for the major criminal trafficking organizations. These drug trafficking organizations are known to exploit any means possible in order to smuggle their poison into the United States.
Over the past several years, established drug trafficking organizations based in Mexico and Southern and Central California have seized control of the illicit methamphetamine trade. The principal reasons for their rise to dominance is the ability of these organizations to exploit existing, well established transportation and distribution networks on both sides of the border, as well as their ability to illegally secure large amounts of precursor chemicals. These drug trafficking organizations have revolutionized the production of methamphetamine by operating large-scale laboratories in Mexico and California that are capable of producing unprecedented quantities of methamphetamine. Almost all of the "super labs" operating in the United States are located in California. These organizations operate only a small percentage of the total methamphetamine laboratories seized nationally. However, these labs produce an estimated 85% of the methamphetamine distributed in the United States. These criminal organizations have saturated the western United States market with methamphetamine; established their distribution cells in other regions of the United States; and are increasingly moving their methamphetamine to markets in the Midwestern and eastern United States.
The Southwest Border is a major transit area for both Mexican and Colombian marijuana smuggled into the United States. Seizures of marijuana have almost doubled from 480,000 kilograms in 1996 to approximately 947,000 kilograms seized in 1999.
Mexico is the predominant foreign source for marijuana consumed in the United States and has been a major supplier of marijuana to the U.S. for several decades. The principal organizations that transport marijuana across the border are Mexico-based polydrug organizations. These organizations smuggle significant amounts of marijuana, as well as other illicit drugs into the U.S. Through an extensive organization of associates, Mexico-based organizations control the transportation and distribution of marijuana from hub cities along the Southwest Border to drug consumption markets throughout the United States.
One of the most alarming trends today is the resurgence of heroin use and addiction among our nation's young people. According to the 1998 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, an estimated 230,000 Americans began using heroin during the two previous years. Tragically, the average age of these new users was 18 -- the lowest age since the 1960's.
These organized crime syndicates are not satisfied with their billions in cocaine profits; they also seek similar profits in the heroin trade. Mexico has become the second-largest source of heroin used in the United States. Organized crime syndicates based in Mexico now dominate the heroin market in the West and hold a substantial share of the Midwest market and are actively pursuing markets on the East Coast. We have evidence that these traffickers are providing samples of black tar heroin or brown powdered heroin to contacts on the East Coast in an attempt to generate product interest. In addition, some Mexican traffickers have sought the expertise of Colombian chemists in an effort to produce high purity white heroin in their laboratories.
Historically, traffickers from Mexico used their proximity and access to the Mexico-U.S. border to their advantage. After safely smuggling heroin across the border, these organizations routinely stockpile the heroin in locations such as San Diego and Los Angeles, California. The heroin was subsequently distributed in pound quantities throughout the United States. By keeping quantities small, they minimized the risk of losing significant quantities of product to U.S. law enforcement. In addition, once the heroin reaches the U.S., these traffickers rely upon well-entrenched polydrug smuggling and distribution networks to distribute their heroin.
The popularity of black tar heroin has increased as its purity has soared. Traditionally, Mexican brown or "black tar" heroin was recognized as an inferior and less pure grade of heroin. However, recent investigations have revealed purity levels of black tar heroin as high as 84%, explaining its increased popularity.
At this purity level, heroin can be administered by several methods, including smoking and snorting the heroin. First time and casual users who find injecting heroin unglamorous and who want to avoid sharing dirty needles prefer these methods of ingestion. However, as drug users gain tolerance, addicted snorters and smokers are forced to turn to injection, which quickly leads to hard core addiction.
Heroin abuse is not restricted to the inner city poor and the Hollywood elite. Middle class teenagers and young adults in places like Orlando, Florida, Plano, Texas and Rio Arriba County, New Mexico, have fallen prey to heroin addiction as a consequence of their experimenting with high-purity dosages of this dangerous narcotic. In Orlando, approximately 51 deaths were attributed to heroin overdose in 1999 and, in Plano; at least 19 young adults have died from heroin abuse since 1996. Tragically, Rio Arriba County New Mexico had the highest per capita heroin overdose death rate in America. Between 1995 and 1998 the small town of Chimayo, located in Rio Arriba County, has suffered over 85 deaths attributed to high purity, black tar heroin.
Although black tar heroin has been available in the U.S. for many years, these tragic consequences of heroin use clearly illustrates the threat now posed by this potent type of heroin. In addition, black tar heroin produced in Mexico has become the heroin of choice in areas traditionally dominated by Colombian heroin and Southeast Asian heroin manufactured in the Golden Triangle.
Drug trafficking organizations based in Mexico routinely rely on violence as an essential tool of the trade. Much of the drug-related violence, which has become commonplace in Mexico, has spilled over into the United States. Many of these acts of violence have been aimed at U.S. law enforcement personnel working along or in close proximity to the Southwest Border.
Over the past few years drug traffickers have adopted a strategy of taking increasingly confrontational and defensive actions when moving drug loads across the Southwest border. During 1998, a relatively new trend involving armed attacks by Mexican traffickers on U.S. law enforcement officers continued with fatal consequences. These armed encounters developed during the drug traffickers' attempts to avoid arrest while fleeing back to Mexico. One such attack took place on June 3, 1998, along the Southwest border near Nogales, Arizona. U.S. Border Patrol Agent Alexander Kirpnick and a fellow agent were attempting to arrest five Mexican males who were transporting marijuana north across the border when he was shot and killed by one of the traffickers.
Law Enforcement Response:
In response to the emergence of these criminal drug trafficking organizations, it became apparent that a coordinated strategy for law enforcement counterdrug activities needed to be implemented. In order to combat drug production and trafficking networks operating along the Southwest border, DEA, in concert with other Federal agencies established the Southwest Border Initiative - an integrated, coordinated, law enforcement effort designed to attack the command and control structure of these criminal organizations. This strategy focuses on intelligence and enforcement efforts, which target drug distribution systems within the U.S., and directs resources toward the disruption of those principal drug trafficking organizations operating across the border.
In 1999, DEA developed Special Field Intelligence Programs (SFIP's) which are designed to gather intelligence aimed at identifying Mexico based heroin trafficking organizations operating in the United States, particularly along the southwest border. The SFIP concept is designed to collect, analyze, and disseminate drug trafficking intelligence in areas where intelligence gaps exist. In addition, DEA launched Operation Chiva in May 1999, which targets individuals that distribute black tar heroin throughout the United States. The objectives of this operation are to identify, arrest, and prosecute the most significant traffickers of Mexican heroin, and to coordinate a nationwide strategy in this effort for DEA field offices.
The most effective way to dismantle these major drug trafficking organizations is through multi-agency cooperative investigations. The Special Operations Division enhances agency ability to dismantle these criminal organizations. The Special Operations Division (SOD) is a joint national coordinating and support entity comprised of agents, analysts, and prosecutors from DOJ, Customs, FBI, DEA and IRS. Its mission is to coordinate and support regional and national criminal investigations and prosecutions against international drug trafficking organizations that threaten our nation. These cooperative investigations have yielded tremendous results as evidenced by the success of such cases as Operation Impunity, Operation Green-Air, and more recently Operation Tar Pit.
Operation Tar-Pit was a year long investigation which resulted in the complete disruption and dismantling of the largest black-tar heroin organization operating in the United States to date. The Operation culminated in the arrests of over 225 suspects and the seizure of over 64 pounds of black tar heroin.
The leadership of this organization was based in the Mexican State of Nayarit, Mexico, and maintained several heroin-processing laboratories in Nayarit which were supplying the United States. The El Paso Intelligence Center reported that approximately 125 kilograms of heroin had been seized along the Southwest border. Of the heroin seized at the Southwest border in 1998, 39 percent was reported as black tar heroin, 23 percent as brown heroin, 19 percent as South American heroin and 19 percent as unknown. Currently, black tar heroin accounts for as much as 80 percent of the total amount of heroin produced in Mexico.
The investigation revealed that this organization was responsible for smuggling and distributing approximately 80 to 100 pounds of black-tar heroin a month into the United States. In addition, Operation Tar Pit proved that Mexican traffickers were in fact attempting to expand their traditional western markets into the more lucrative, high-purity white heroin market in the eastern part of the nation currently controlled by Colombia-based traffickers. The targeted Nayarit, Mexico, based organization established heroin drug trafficking cells as far west as Hawaii and as far east as New Jersey.
Operation Tar Pit also revealed this organization's ruthlessness and total disregard for human life. During the investigation, it was learned that these criminals targeted methadone clinics and preyed on heroin addicts who were seeking help for their heroin addiction. Their callous marketing efforts were responsible for driving recovering addicts back into the cycle of heroin use.
Drug trafficking organizations operating along the Southwest Border, continue to be one of the greatest threats to communities across this great nation. As a result of their alliances with Colombian organizations, Mexico based drug trafficking organizations increasingly have become organized, specialized and efficient, with individual components steadily consolidating power and control over well-defined areas of responsibilities and geographic strongholds. The influence of these organizations is pervasive and continues to expand to new markets in the U.S. cities. Their power, influence and growth are presenting new challenges to law enforcement agencies that are addressing this threat.
The DEA is deeply committed in our efforts to identify, target, arrest, and incapacitate the leadership of these criminal drug trafficking organizations. The combined investigations of DEA, FBI, the U.S. Customs Service, and members of other federal, state, and local police departments continue to result in the seizure of hundreds of tons of drugs, hundreds of millions of dollars in drug proceeds and the indictments of significant drug traffickers.
Cooperative investigations such as Operation Tar Pit serve to send a strong message to all drug traffickers that the U.S. law enforcement community will not sit idle as these organizations threaten the welfare of our citizens and the security of our towns and cities.
Mr. Chairman, thank you for the opportunity to appear before the Subcommittee today. At this time I would be happy to answer any questions you may have.