DEA Official: Mexican Drug Cartels Doing 'Tremendous Harm to Our Communities'

Susan Jones | July 30, 2015 | 9:37am EDT
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A firearm and 154 pounds of heroin worth at least $50 million are displayed at a DEA news conference, Tuesday, May 19, 2015 in New York. The DEA called the heroin seizure its largest ever in New York state. (Mark Lennihan/AP Photo)

( - "When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best," Donald Trump said last month, prompting fierce denunciation for suggesting that some of the Mexicans coming here are bringing drugs and crime with them.

On Tuesday, a U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency official told Congress that Mexican drug cartels are fueling the U.S. heroin epidemic, producing crime and violence, and doing "tremendous harm to our communities." And no one disputed him.

"Overdose deaths involving heroin are increasing at an alarming rate, having almost tripled since 2010," Jack Riley, the acting deputy DEA administrator, told a House Justice subcommittee on Tuesday.

"Today’s heroin at the retail level costs less and is more potent than the heroin that DEA encountered a decade ago. It comes predominantly across the Southwest Border
and is produced with greater sophistication from powerful transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) like the Sinaloa Cartel. These Mexican-based TCOs are extremely dangerous and violent and continue to be the principal suppliers of heroin to the United States."

Riley produced a map showing how the Sinaloa cartel has infiltrated the nation by partnering with street gangs to peddle their drugs.

"And this map you're looking at would have been vastly different just five years ago," he said. "The role of heroin -- the toxic business relationship that's evolved in virtually every corner of this country between urban street gangs and Mexican cartels is frightening to me and what keeps me up at night."

Riley said law enforcement is doing a better job of sharing information and "connecting the dots." He said the DEA, with its limited resources, attacks the trafficking organizations at "the highest levels possible," not bothering with low-level drug-possession offenders.

How important are street gangs -- some of which include illegal aliens -- in the heroin distribution process? Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.) asked Riley.

"Sir, I think they've become almost crucial to the Mexican cartels," Riley responded. "Speaking just of Chicago and the Midwest, there are over 150,000 documented  street gang members. Largely they make their living from putting drugs on the street, supplied by the cartels. Heroin is now their drug of choice. And the way that they regulate themselves, sir, is by the barrel of a gun.

"So this is an enormity in terms of what we're seeing across the country, and it's extremely toxic. And that's why it's really important for law enforcement to be involved to attack the organizations -- not just what's occurring on the street..."

In his opening statement, Riley pointed to data showing that domestic heroin seizures have increased 81 percent over five years, from 2,763 kilograms in 2010 to 5,014 kilograms in 2014. Traffickers also are bringing in larger amounts of heroin, with the average seizure weighing 1.74 kilograms in 2014.

Riley said there are four major heroin-producing areas in the world, but heroin bound for the U.S. market originates predominantly in Mexico, and to a lesser extent, Colombia -- and most of it comes across the Southwest border, where heroin seizures have more than doubled, from 846 kilograms in 2009 to 2,188 kilograms in 2014.

"DEA has also seen a 50 percent increase in poppy cultivation in Mexico primarily in the State of Guerrero and the Mexican 'Golden Triangle,' which includes the states of Chihuahua, Sinaloa, and Durango. The increased cultivation results in a corresponding increase in heroin production and trafficking from Mexico to the United States, and impacts both of our nations, by supporting the escalation of heroin use in the United States, as well as the instability and violence growing throughout areas in Mexico."

Riley said Americans' growing addiction to painkillers and other prescription opiods has given the Mexican cartels a good opportunity to grow their business and maximize profits:

"Individuals with opioid use disorders who begin using heroin do so because of price differences (i.e., heroin is less expensive), but also because of increasing heroin availability relative to opiate-based controlled prescription drugs."

For the record, Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) asked Riley about the "mythology that our federal prisons are full of low-level, nonviolent offenders.

"Not based on the investigations that I was involved in," Riley replied. He said DEA goes after "the largest traffickers we can idneitify and and the largest organizations."

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