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From Mexico to Maine: The Endless Drug Cartel Pipeline Through the US

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By Sylvia Longmire
Contributor, In Homeland Security

Every year, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) publishes a report called the National Drug Threat Assessment. This report essentially provides an overview of what illegal drugs are being used in different parts of the country, what organizations are distributing those drugs, and the threat both of those things pose to our communities.

Each year, the number of U.S. cities where the U.S. Department of Justice has identified some kind of Mexican drug cartel presence increases. Although the method analysts used to arrive at those numbers is hotly debated, the truth remains that Mexican cartels have some sort of reach into every part of the US where there is a demand for marijuana, cocaine, heroin, or methamphetamine.

However, that reach isn’t static. It is continuously growing and shifting and morphing, completely dependent upon and utterly responsive to changing drug demand. The spike in Mexican-origin heroin use across the country in the past decade—particularly in the Midwest states—has reached epidemic proportions, and traffickers, manufacturers, and dealers are right there to keep the trend going.

The origins of this heroin surge can more or less be traced back to the popularity of opiate painkillers like oxycodone (brand name Oxycontin). These pills were so potent—and addictive—that a black market for them quickly formed. “Pill mills” sprung up around the country (notably in Ohio and Florida) where dirty doctors would write dubious opiate prescriptions for vague ailments just for the cash kickbacks from patients. Teenagers weren’t just swallowing the pills; they were crushing and snorting them, quickly developing a tolerance for them and needing more and more every week.

Enter the black tar heroin scourge from Mexico. Drug runners from south of the border have been peddling heroin for decades, but the advent of the black tar variety opened up new markets for the cartels. Although this sticky and messy substance is less refined than the white powder version, it can be smoked or snorted—meaning it doesn’t have to be injected, eliminating a barrier to entry for a younger generation more conscious about appearances. Black tar heroin is much purer than the older brown powder version, typically reaching purity levels between 40 and 70 percent. It is also usually cheaper than many opiate pills being sold on the street. This combination has led to a significant increase in heroin use by a whole new American demographic: white, middle-class teenagers living in Middle America.

But the reach of cartels in this business has literally expanded to the farthest corner of the continental United States from the southwest border: the state of Maine. In early December 2015, the Portland Press Herald reported that in recent years, as drug gangs realized the market potential in northern New England, more heroin started flowing into the region directly from New York City, as opposed to the much smaller Massachusetts cities of Lowell and Lawrence. Historically, heroin arrived in Maine by means of “day trippers”—Maine addicts who drive to Lawrence or Lowell with a few hundred dollars and the phone number of a contact, per the Press Herald. But now New York City is the main heroin hub, and the DEA estimates that one-third of all the agency’s U.S. heroin seizures happen in New York City.

New York dealers are also outsmarting Dominican drug gangs in Massachusetts by acting as the “big box store” of heroin, working with bulk amounts that translate into larger shipments. A lower overhead, combined with the drastic price markup that the remoteness of Maine commands, means enormous profitability for cartels willing to do business in the farthest reaches of the continental United States. Law enforcement officials say that a gram of heroin that fetches $30 or less in New York can sell for as much as $120 in Maine.

In most cases, this spread of cartel drug activity into new communities doesn’t bring a huge spike in associated gang violence. Shootouts and dead bodies are very bad for business, as any dealer will say, and especially Mexican distributors prefer to keep authorities guessing when it comes to their U.S. networks. However, the concern lies with the fact these activities are occurring in every corner of the country, and no city or town or community is immune from cartel or gang encroachment when there is a drug demand present.

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