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Colombians Up Quality, Lower Price of Heroin

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Every Friday afternoon, caravans of Toyota Land Cruisers and Ford Broncos raise a dust storm along the dirt road that leads to this village in the Colombian mountains.

Passengers in blue jeans and boots stop at El Porvenir, the village store, to sip soda and make discreet inquiries before continuing to the guerrilla roadblock that lies somewhere outside of town.

They are on their way to guerrilla-held territory to buy mancha, the sticky white liquid that flows from the poppies planted along the mountain ridge. Their purchases are the first link in a marketing chain that is changing U.S. heroin consumption.

Colombians are doing to the international heroin market what they did with cocaine: lowering the price and raising the quality to capture a broad customer base. They also are targeting a specific market: people who are afraid of becoming infected with the human immunodeficiency virus, which causes AIDS, from dirty needles. Colombian heroin is so pure that it can be smoked or sniffed instead of injected.

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Colombians have already captured an estimated two-thirds of the East Coast heroin market, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, and the quality of their product is putting pressure on drug dealers throughout the United States.

Colombians have been reluctant to sell heroin on the West Coast because Mexican cartels control that market. Mexican traffickers have taken over much of the distribution of Colombian cocaine, and the Colombians do not want to share heroin profits with them or irk them by competing head-on, narcotics experts said.

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Because the heroin trade is illegal, production figures are sketchy and estimates vary. Colombia’s anti-narcotics police estimate that the country produced 5,000 tons of heroin last year--about as much as Mexico and barely 1.6% of total estimated world production. Most of the world’s heroin comes from Southeast Asia, from what is known as the Golden Triangle--Myanmar, Thailand and Laos.

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But the DEA says that half the heroin seized at U.S. airports last year was from Colombia. At East Coast airports, the figure was 91%.

Further, since the Colombians entered the heroin market in full force, the wholesale price of heroin in New York has dropped from $230,000 a kilo (2.2 pounds) in 1992 to $80,000 a kilo last year, according to one of the Colombian government’s drug policy advisors, who asked not to be named.

That indicates that Colombia is producing enough heroin to drive down prices, the advisor said. “Colombian traffickers have read Adam Smith,” he explained, referring to the 18th century economist who helped develop free-market theory. “If you are able to put a product in the market at a reasonable price, the market will expand.”

When the Colombians began trafficking cocaine in the early 1970s, it was the “rich man’s drug” that actor Peter Fonda’s character sold in the film “Easy Rider.” Back then, cocaine cost $230,000 a kilo, according to a report prepared recently for Colombian police. In 1993, the report stated, cocaine sold for one-tenth that price.

“That market has expanded horribly, and they are still making huge amounts of money,” the advisor said. “I predict that the same thing will happen in the heroin trade.”

While U.S. drug enforcement officials have expressed alarm at the growth in Colombia’s heroin production, they have advised the Colombian government to focus its drug eradication program on cocaine, according to informed sources.

Dusting heroin poppies with defoliant is dangerous for pilots--more so than flying over the bushes that produce cocaine--because the poppies are in the mountains. It is also less effective, because the flowers grow back in three to six months. Coca bushes take about twice as long to produce a new crop, which makes them more expensive to replace than poppies.

Only one Colombian airplane is designated for poppy eradication, the sources said.

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But that plane is enough to wreak havoc on the peasants whose fields of poppy--their main cash crop--are sprayed. “Do you see that poppy field on the ridge?” asked one farmer, pointing across the valley. “Every time it starts to flower, the plane comes along and sprays. They lose everything. Those people [poppy farmers] are just stubborn.”

Poppy growers reply that their decision to replant repeatedly rather than find another lucrative crop is a matter of simple economics. A one-acre poppy field requires an investment of about $81 in fertilizer and fumigation, and at the end of six months yields about five kilos of mancha, worth about $3,000. Planted with corn, the same field would produce a crop worth about $30 after seven months.

“It is 100 times more profitable to plant poppies than corn,” said Naum, a local farmer, who asked that his last name not be published. “People who grow poppies can have some class. Those who don’t will always be poor.”

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Poppies yield the most heroin when grown at very high altitudes, and peasants here are cutting down mountaintop forests and clearing fields ever higher. The government can do little to stop them because guerrillas who have waged civil war against the Colombian government for three decades control the area.

The growers have no compunction about breaking the law. “People [grow poppies] to find a better life because the government has abandoned us,” said Bernardo, another farmer.

The village of San Jorge de las Hermosas has no electricity, running water or school. This region is also coffee country, and the dirt road was built and is maintained not by the government but by the Colombian Coffee Growers Federation.

The guerrillas of the Colombia Revolutionary Armed Forces, the oldest and largest of the country’s many fighting factions, come down the mountain every Friday to provide protection from bandits for mancha buyers carrying bundles of cash.

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They organize the weekly mancha market in nearby San Jose de las Hermosas. They decide who enters the area and how far up the mountain such people may go.

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Colombia’s heroin trade grew from the serendipity of the cocaine traffickers trying to diversify at a time when international coffee prices had plummeted and the guerrillas had begun a strategy of expanding the territory under their control, experts said.

When the traffickers saw the crackdown on U.S. marijuana production a decade ago, said Colombian drug and guerrilla expert Alfredo Molano, they realized that a similar crackdown on cocaine could cost them their main market.

“They already had everything they needed [to trade in heroin]: money, a U.S. distribution network and, undoubtedly, contacts with the Sicilian Mafia that runs the heroin business,” Molano said.

Molano first heard about the Colombian foray into heroin in 1989, when he was conducting research in the Macarena mountains, in the most eastern of Colombia’s three mountain ranges. “They [the cartels] brought technicians from Asia, from the Golden Triangle, to introduce morphine and heroin production methods.”

They brought high-yield seeds, he said, and chose four optimal regions: Cauca, where coca leaves were already growing in the lowlands; the Perija mountains; Huila province; and--most productive--this area in the mountains above coffee country and near the cartels’ headquarters in Medellin and Cali.

Police estimate that 60% of Colombia’s heroin production comes from here, in Tolima province.

The cocaine cartels’ search for diversification coincided with the coffee crisis. International prices had plunged, and Colombia’s coffee federation no longer could completely buffer the effects of the worldwide market.

Small growers such as Pompilio, a 28-year-old father of three, could not rely on the coffee crop to solve their family financial crises. “My wife got sick,” he said, explaining why he began growing poppies. “I had bills to pay, and coffee was not going to pay them.”

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When farmers began climbing the mountains to plant poppies, they ran into the guerrillas. The rebels offered to provide them with protection from the government in exchange for a tax--a system similar to the one already in place in coca-growing areas.

At first, the Colombians distributed heroin through Italy, Molano said, but they soon developed direct routes to the United States. Police believe that most Colombian heroin now flows through Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic to Miami or through Central America.

Central American police said the Colombian heroin they have found--identifiable by DNA testing--has been in airports, carried by people who swallow capsules filled with heroin or smuggle small quantities in their luggage.

Large quantities, like the ton-size cocaine shipments that are regularly confiscated, have not been found. “It is a higher-value product, so they take more care with it,” said one law enforcement official.

Colombians are continuing their efforts to produce higher-quality heroin in larger volumes. Poppy farmers here debate the relative yields of flowers that bloom in four or six months and a new variety that takes just three months.

They also note that farther up the mountain, growers are processing mancha into more lucrative opium and even morphine.

Asked what would persuade them to stop growing poppies, Naum had a ready answer: “Losing money. They would have to spray and spray and spray, until all we had were losses.”


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