Colombia an Important Source Of Growing Heroin Problem, Says DEA Operations Chief
"The number of heroin users in the U.S. has increased substantially since the early 1990s," DEA's Chief of Operations recently told a Congressional panel. In 1992, there were an estimated 630,000 hard-core heroin users in the U.S., he said; today, the number has risen to almost a million.
In testimony on December 12, 2002, before the House Committee on Government Reform, Rogelio E. Guevara also said that heroin use was mentioned more than any other illicit drug except cocaine during visits to America's hospital emergency rooms between 1996 and 1999.
Where does all this heroin come from? That depends on where you live. If you live west of the Mississippi, chances are good that most of the heroin sold on your streets comes from Mexico. East of the Mississippi, said Mr. Guevara, most of it comes from Colombia.
That last fact is a big change from the way things used to be. "In the 1980s and 1990s, said Mr. Guevara, Southeast and Southwest Asian traffickers dominated the heroin trade, with the majority of heroin entering the market originating in Burma and Afghanistan."
In fact, Burmese and Afghan heroin still dominates the worldwide market. According to Mr. Guevara, the amount of heroin produced in Colombia in 2001 was only a small fraction of the heroin produced in Asia.
Although Colombia produced, by comparison, far less, its product predominates in U.S. markets, a big change from 1990, when none of the heroin seized in the U.S. came from Colombia. The DEA Heroin Signature Program, which identifies the source of heroin seized at U.S. ports of entry and on the street, found that 56 percent of the heroin seized by Federal authorities in 2001 came from Colombia. Heroin seized under this program cannot be equated with market share, but it is a good indicator of relative levels of availability.
The increase in Colombian heroin is worrisome for a number of reasons. One is that the Colombian heroin sold on American streets is more potent, which results in far more visits to hospital emergency rooms. Greater potency also means that users are able to inhale it, making it far more attractive to potential users than the traditional process of injecting heroin, with all of the health-related and cosmetic problems typical of using hypodermic needles. The ability to inhale heroin is certainly one reason for the drug's growing popularity.
A second worrisome problem associated with Colombian heroin is the close relationship between drug trafficking and terrorism. "Intelligence information," Mr. Guevara told the committee, "indicates the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which is a State Department-designated foreign terrorist organization, charges a 'tax fee' from heroin traffickers who obtain heroin from areas under FARC control. The FARC is also suspected of charging a tax to farmers who cultivate poppy plants in areas they control."
In fact, Mr. Guevara added, the FARC and the United Self Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) get a high percentage of their operating revenues from narcotics trafficking. "The fight against international drug trafficking organizations," he said, "is a crucial element in conducting the war on terror."
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