Heroin Outlives Drug Fads, Raids : Drug Fads, Police Raids Fail to Dent New York’s Thriving Heroin Trade : Narcotics: Crack cocaine may be Public Enemy No. 1, but the old-timer of addictive drugs still ruins lives.


Outside a Bronx apartment building, a postal worker sits in his parked car with a load of mail in his trunk. He is not making a delivery, he is waiting for one--five packets of heroin.

Inside the terminal at JFK International Airport, U.S. Customs Service agents await a flight from Nigeria. Its passengers must be closely monitored. In the last five months, agents have recovered more than 340 pounds of heroin from passengers arriving from West Africa.

In the age of the crack cocaine craze and designer drugs such as ecstasy and ice, heroin has quietly maintained its grip on New York City.

In fact, evidence indicates that heroin is enjoying a renaissance in the drug culture.


“Four years ago, crack came out and became THE big thing,” says U.S. customs official David Ripa. “Heroin’s kind of grown during that time.”

Tony Contorno, supervisory customs inspector at JFK, says, “This is the heroin capital of the world here. We far surpass anyplace else in heroin seizures.”

Customs workers at JFK have posted a hand-printed sign on the office door:

“While we stand with our thumb in the dike against a tidal wave of cocaine, we are sinking in the quicksand of heroin.”

Other officials in the drug war confirm what has been obvious to Contorno: The heroin trade has continued unabated for years and is now expanding. The amount of heroin seized nationally by customs officials thus far in fiscal 1990 projects to 2,400 pounds for the year--nearly four times what was recovered in 1987.

The Drug Enforcement Administration reports similarly striking jumps in seizures. The total amount of heroin recovered in the last two fiscal years was more than double what it was in 1987.

“It’s growing. There’s no question about it,” said DEA spokesman Cornelius Dougherty in Washington. “The purity’s up, the quantity’s up, the quality’s up.”

Roughly half of the heroin seized each year in the United States is recovered in the New York area.

Sterling Johnson, state special prosecutor for narcotics, said, “Everybody talks about the French Connection case, but last year we seized more than 800 pounds in one swoop.”

The French Connection bust, which inspired a hit movie, netted 220 pounds of heroin, a startling amount for the late 1960s, but one that pales in comparison with last year’s Operation White Mare.

In that case last February, agents busted a ring and recovered 828 pounds of heroin worth $1 billion. This February, a bust of 92.7 pounds of heroin caused barely a media ripple. In both cases, there was no dramatic falloff in heroin availability, authorities say.

Both those arrests involved shipments from the Golden Triangle in Southeast Asia--the countries of Laos, Burma and Thailand--which federal authorities say is now the major supplier of heroin to the United States. Chinese organized crime figures were able to move into the heroin business following a crackdown on the Mafia, which culminated in the Pizza Connection trial.

While no drugs were ever recovered, the Pizza Connection case exposed an international conspiracy to trade cocaine for heroin, which in turn was distributed nationwide through pizzerias. It involved both the Sicilian and American Mafia. Eighteen of 19 defendants were convicted on March 2, 1987.

Despite that law enforcement coup, the heroin trade bounced back. The drug was entrenched in the inner city. Statistics show just how deeply.

* Last year, 19% of the arrests by the city’s Tactical Narcotics Team involved heroin cases, as compared to 1% in 1988. Heroin arrests by the police narcotics division were up 80% in 1989.

* A record number of drug mules--hired couriers who swallow condoms packed with dope and carry them into the U.S. internally--are importing a record amount of heroin. Between October, 1988, and September, 1989, 97 mules were caught bringing in 126 pounds of heroin; 87 mules were busted in the next 4 1/2 months, with the same amount of heroin seized.

* The country has 500,000 to 600,000 heroin addicts, with an estimated one-third to one-half of them in New York City. The number of heroin addicts receiving treatment has remained constant in recent years, said Steve D’Nistrian of Phoenix House, a Manhattan-based treatment center.

What they have seen more of in recent months is people using heroin as a crack parachute, easing them down from the high of the cocaine derivative, he said.

Others, explains Capt. Robert Cividanes of the narcotics division, prefer “chasing the dragon"--smoking heroin.

“Smoking heroin is in vogue,” said Cividanes, attributing its popularity to the fear of AIDS, which is often spread by shared needles.

While most heroin in recent years came from the Golden Triangle, heroin from West Africa--particularly Nigeria--is now reaching the market.

“In 1982, we arrested one Nigerian for heroin. The next year, it was 23. Now, it’s in the hundreds,” said customs official Gary Murray.

Officials expect Pakistani heroin to be the next new source. Johnson said Pakistan has 1.3 million heroin addicts.