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How does heroin get here?
The Heroin Crisis: A 3-Day Series

The path of the plague

While Afghanistan is by far the world’s largest heroin supplier, the United States and most of the Americas get heroin manufactured in Colombia or Mexico, according to the DEA and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

Afghan heroin goes predominantly to Russia, Europe and other parts of Asia.

More than half of the heroin seized in the United States since the mid-1990s originated in Colombia, but the DEA noted that Mexico over the last dozen years has been a fast-growing source of confiscated heroin and reached nearly 50 percent in 2012 and 2013.

Wilson R. Palacios, an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell’s School of Criminology and Justice Studies, moved here from the University of South Florida to study the opioid epidemic in New England first hand. As a drug ethnographer, he is interested in drug subcultures and how people define and identify themselves.

“We do know that Mexico is a major player,” he said. “They have been since we dismantled the Colombian cartels years ago. Mexico was poised and took over that vacuum those actions created.”

Advantages for Mexican cartels to producing close to home are lower costs, for not having to smuggle from Colombia through Central America, and control over the final product.

One of the consequences of that change, he said, is a growing incursion into American cities of Mexican cartels, sometimes battling existing American street gangs over distribution territory.

“We know that the violence Chicago has been experiencing, I hear, is attributed to a larger presence by Mexican drug cartels in terms of operating heroin markets there,” he said. Chicago’s experience continued a similar trend in cities like Phoenix and Dallas.

The two kinds of heroin – the Mexican type that is a brown powder or what is called black tar, and the white powder from Colombia – previously wound up in different parts of the United States. Mexican heroin often was found west of the Mississippi River, while the Colombian variety came east.

But that has changed as Mexican cartels have expanded their distribution networks toward the East Coast, and into smaller eastern cities. That Mississippi dividing line has blurred.

Northbound, via the Merrimack Valley

DEA officials have said New York is a major hub for heroin en route north. It then comes to Boston, or sometimes directly to Lawrence.

From Lawrence, it is distributed in small amounts locally for use and in quantity for distribution in northern New England.

Methuen and Haverhill see many of those transactions and police have stepped up surveillance in certain areas of their cities close to highways. In Methuen, police keep an eye on Jackson Street, Swan Street and Merrimack Street because the area is close to both Lawrence and Interstate 495.

Police Sgt. James Gunter said detectives watch that area for people who drive from hours away, often Maine or northern New Hampshire, to buy large amounts of heroin. But often they also see people who buy small amounts for themselves and use in their cars in a parking lot. Solomon has said his department’s focus is to disrupt the sales and distribution network, rather than arrest users.

Early in February, Methuen Police arrested three people, two men from Lawrence and a woman from about an hour northeast of Portland, after what police said was a major transaction involving more than 150 grams of heroin.

Dealers from New Hampshire and Maine come to Methuen and Haverhill to buy a large amount cheaper than they can find at home, and then sell for double or triple what it would go for here.

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