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President's Commission on Organized Crime, 1986
Drug trafficking is the most widespread and lucrative organized crime operation in the United States, accounting for nearly 40 percent of this country's organized crime activity and generating an annual income estimated to be as high as $110 billion. Large trafficking organizations dominate the illicit drug market. These groups include the "families" of America's La Cosa Nostra, as well as an array of more recently identified crime groups such as the Sicilian "Mafia," outlaw motorcycle gangs and groups based in the Nigerian and Colombian communities. While La Cosa Nostra has historically been involved in narcotics trafficking, newer organizations, in many ways quite different from La Cosa Nostra, now play a major role in the drug trade. Generally, these newer groups develop solely around drug trafficking operations and are activity-specific, dependent only on drug-related criminal activity for income. They tend to be more fluidly organized than La Cosa Nostra, and are not as self-contained but are marked by a degree of violence and corruption unsurpassed by any other criminal activity.
Organized crime groups involved in drug trafficking, however, share a central feature with other organized crime groups in that they consist of a core criminal group and a specialized criminal support designed to facilitate illicit activity. This "core/support" configuration is one this Commission has found to be common to all organized crime groups today.
America's cocaine supply at present originates exclusively in South America. Coca is cultivated principally in Peru, Bolivia, Colombia and Ecuador, and conversion laboratories have been located in Colombia, Brazil and Venezuela. Other South American and Caribbean countries serve as transshipment sites. All phases of the cocaine trade, including cultivation, processing and distribution have expanded since 1984, and the industry shows no signs of diminishing despite the fact that cocaine supply already exceeds consumer demand.
Control of the cocaine industry has traditionally been maintained by a cartel of Colombian traffickers. Colombian groups are the largest, wealthiest, most sophisticated organizations trafficking in cocaine. A key to their domination of the market has been their control of the processing laboratories used to convert coca grown traditionally in Bolivia and Peru. Export of the drug to the United States has also been handled almost exclusively by Colombian trafficking organizations. While Colombians currently control an estimated 75 percent of the cocaine distributed to the United States, their domination has been lessened recently both by the Colombian government's imposition of severe restrictions on the importation of chemicals essential to cocaine processing and by the destruction of cocaine processing sites throughout Colombia by government authorities. In 1984 three major Colombian conversion laboratories were discovered and destroyed: at Tranquilandia, the largest facility, ten metric tons of cocaine and 10,000 barrels of processing chemicals were seized. In total, Colombian authorities confiscated 16 metric tons of cocaine in 1984, a 600 percent increase from the 2.5 metric tons seized in the previous year. The pressures on cocaine traffickers were compounded in that year by the Colombian government's decision to extradite drug traffickers to the United States, and by the subsequent issuance of warrants for the arrest of several major traffickers.
Intensified Colombian law enforcement measures have had significant impact on trafficking operations. The initiatives have prompted many traffickers to seek refuge in other South American countries, and in some cases to relocate their processing laboratories. These incidents have resulted in a geographic dispersal of cocaine processing and export activities, most notably to Bolivia and Peru. While it appeared initially that activity in these countries was sponsored and overseen by Colombian traffickers, increasing evidence suggests that groups in both countries are becoming self-sufficient. Such developments, however, remain an exception to the prevailing Colombian dominance.
Despite the spread of cocaine activity through South America, Colombian groups have left little room in the cocaine trade for small-scale smugglers. While some independent operators and smaller smuggling groups occasionally work independently of the Colombian cartel, most are tied to the larger organization in at least a contractor relationship.
The Colombian Connection: Origins
The Colombian involvement in U.S. cocaine trafficking can be traced to the influx of Cuban citizens to South Florida after the Castro Revolution in the early 1960's. Some of the Cuban-settled communities became bases for the continuation of established Cuban organized crime networks known as the "Cuban Mafia." The Cuban Mafia had been a major distributor of the cocaine in Cuba, where the drug has long been accepted as a social luxury, and thus had existing connections with South American cocaine trafficking organizations. At first, the Florida Cuban Mafia factions imported only enough cocaine to satisfy members of their own community, but by the mid-1960's, they began to import greater quantities of the drug in an effort to expand distribution and increase profit. By 1965 Colombians supplied nearly 100 percent of the cocaine moving through the Cuban networks. Colombians refined the drug and Cubans trafficked and distributed it in the United States. The system worked for a time, but the Colombians increasingly desired control of the entire operation. Through the late 1960's and early 1970's they became more involved in cocaine production, and increased their trafficking role. By 1978 Colombian traffickers had cut all ties with the Cubans and assumed the dominant role they now play in supplying cocaine to the American market.
Colombian groups have continued to control the U.S. cocaine market through the 1980's for a number of reasons. Geographically, Colombia is well-positioned both to receive coca from Peru and Bolivia and to export the processed drug to the United States either by air or by sea. In addition, the country's vast central forests effectively conceal clandestine processing laboratories and air strips, which facilitate the traffic. Perhaps most importantly, the Colombians have a momentum by benefit of their early involvement in the cocaine trade. They have evolved from small, disassociated groups into compartmentalized organizations and are sophisticated and systematized in their approach to trafficking cocaine in the United States. Further, groups in the Colombian population in the U.S. provide traffickers access to this country and often serves as a distribution network for Colombian cocaine.
The Colombian Organization
The major Colombian trafficking organizations are structured to control each intermediate step required in processing and exporting cocaine. Like traditional organized crime groups, they are built of interdependent and essential component "divisions," each with a specialized area of responsibility. Different members act as laborers, processors, transporters, financiers and enforcers. In addition, organizations generally supplement their regular membership with criminal support of affiliates who perform services on a fee basis. Few members of any organizational division are aware of the others involved in the enterprise, and trafficking bosses are well-insulated and protected by their organizations.
Organization laborers and processors prepare cocaine for U.S. consumption. Most laborers in the cultivation phase are Peruvian or Bolivian peasants who cultivate and harvest coca in remote areas of the Eastern Andes, then process the coca leaves to base in nearby villages. The growers are allied in small, independent groups, but are typically financed, overseen, and protected by members of a larger Colombian organization.
Processed coca base is usually flown on light aircraft from the mountain villages to Colombian processing facilities by those members of the Colombian organization responsible for transportation. The planes land at clandestine airstrips, often simple mud runways, located near the processing laboratories. The laboratories vary widely in size, ranging from crude small-quantity operations to large, sophisticated complexes, and can be found both in Colombia's jungle and urban areas.
Coca base is typically processed to cocaine hydrochloride in the laboratories, then bagged and taped into kilogram packages, which are sometimes coded to indicate a particular United States destination. The packages are loaded into duffle bags or burlap sacks, then moved by the transportation group to a "stash house," a storage facility usually located near a seaport or a clandestine airstrip. The cocaine is held at the stash house until it is exported from Colombia.
Colombian trafficking organizations currently export an estimated 62 percent of the cocaine they process on private aircraft. The remaining 38 percent is shipped on ocean vessels or smuggled on commercial air carriers. Most shipments are smuggled out of Colombia from the country's northern coastal region, the Guajira peninsula. Principal smuggling centers include the cities of Santa Marta, Barranquilla, Cartagena, and Medellin. In addition, a significant percentage of processed cocaine leaves Colombia from airstrips located near larger processing facilities in the jungles.
Typically, Colombian organizations oversee each cocaine shipment from cultivation through wholesale transactions in the United States. Retail and street-level sales are handled by a variety of smaller groups and individuals in this country.
The money generated by the wholesale cocaine transaction is maintained for the organization by financial experts familiar with international banking, who are responsible for laundering, banking and investing drug profits, and for assuring that a portion of the drug profit is returned to Colombia for reinvestment in the organization's cocaine enterprise. The cartel's own financial experts are supported by a complement of bankers, lawyers and other professionals in the United States, who play a crucial role in facilitating these transactions.
Colombian trafficking organizations, like other organized crime groups, rely on "enforcement" through violence and intimidation to protect their inventory and profits. "Enforcement" occurs both in Colombia and in the United States and includes the collection of debts owed to the organization and the elimination of interference from competitors, informants and law enforcement officials.
Pilots: The American Affiliates
Cocaine is ordinarily smuggled from South America to the United States for major trafficking organizations by American citizens acting as mercenary pilots. Recruits include ex-military, commercial and private pilots, and in some cases, unlicensed aviators. The speed, mobility and evasive capabilities of air transport have made it the preferred node of shipment among Colombian traffickers, and many have built airstrips either near their processing centers or along the coastlines to permit the fast direct export of cocaine. On Colombia's north coast alone, over 150 clandestine landing strips and three international airports facilitate smuggling activities.
Individual pilots are generally responsible for purchasing or leasing transportation vehicles and hiring flight crews. Obtaining a plane for purchase seldom presents any difficulty, since many aircraft are regularly advertised for sale in a number of trade periodicals. One popular journal, Trade-a-Plane, is published three times each month and advertises thousands of aircraft available for sale in each issue. Planes are also available for purchase at numerous government auctions of seized properties. These events often allow traffickers to repurchase aircraft, which they were previously forced to forfeit.
Because traffickers attempt to ship the largest possible quantities of cocaine to the widest range of destinations in the United States, the aircraft selected for smuggling generally represent the optimum balance between range and cargo capacity. The most popular of these are conventional light twin engine planes, such as the Piper Aztec, Piper Navajo and the Cessna 400 series. Most such planes can transport about a ton of cocaine over a range of about 1,800 miles and can stay airborne for 11 and one hours with standard fuel systems. Larger airplanes such as DC-3 aircraft are common on shuttle flights between the United States and various transshipment points; the fastest aircraft are always preferred when available.
To maximize range and capability, smuggling planes are often outfitted with auxiliary fuel systems. These auxiliary systems may be attached to the outside body of the aircraft or the wing, but must be inspected and approved by the Federal Aviation Administration each time the outfitted aircraft prepares for flight. A favored auxiliary system for cocaine traffickers is the collapsible rubber fuel "bladder," which may be placed in the plane's fuselage, and simply folded up or thrown away after the fuel contained within is used. The space occupied by the bladder on the trip to Colombia can be utilized for cocaine transport on the return journey. Bladders are, under all circumstances, prohibited by Federal law.
Although the legitimate need for auxiliary fuel systems is very limited, the systems are well-advertised and readily available. One trafficker told the Commission he purchased bladders and other long-range fuel systems regularly, always paying the seller with "suitcases full of cash." He claims his cash was never questioned or refused.
Traffic From Colombia to the United States: The Hydra's Head
Smugglers use a vast number of both air and sea trafficking routes to transport cocaine from South America to the United States. The most commonly travelled routes are through the Windward Passage between Cuba and Haiti, through the Yucatan Channel between Mexico and Cuba, and through the Mona Passage, bordered by the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico.
Traditionally, 90 percent of the cocaine shipped by these routes has entered the United States at points along the Florida coast; traffickers now, however, more frequently deliver shipments to all the States along the Gulf Coast and elsewhere throughout this country. Cocaine traffic also now runs directly from Colombia's west coast to California and other western states. These shifts are perceived as a response by traffickers to increased law enforcement pressure in South Florida, specifically to the intensified efforts of the South Florida/Caribbean Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force. The theme is a common one: as law enforcement closes off one point of entry to drug traffickers, traffickers develop many new points of entry as replacements.
Nearly two-thirds of the cocaine exported from South America to the United State is transported by general aviation aircraft. Planes of all sizes, ranging from small turbo-prop craft to large C-123 cargo transport planes, are used for drug shipment. Small aircraft, which cannot carry adequate fuel to allow direct flight from Colombia to the United States, must refuel at transshipment points between the two countries. These contact points are indispensable, and are located throughout Central America, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, the Bahamas and Puerto Rico. Transshipment points may be simply refueling stations, or may be bases or stations equipped to allow cocaine off-loading and repackaging. From the transshipment points, cocaine is generally ferried to the United States by small planes or boats.
Mexico has gained popularity as a transshipment point since 1980. Although coca cultivation has not been observed in Mexico, an estimated 10 to 20 percent of the cocaine exported to the United States currently transits that country. Three Mexican transshipment patterns are typical. First, Mexican traffickers obtain cocaine in South America, transport it to Mexico, then traffic the drug overland into the United States. Second, Colombian or American couriers travel by commercial aircraft from South America to Mexico, then cross the border into this country. Finally, Colombian or North American traffickers use Mexico's numerous clandestine airstrips, especially in Yucatan, for refueling and for loading purposes; the smuggling plane in use may continue directly into the United States, or the shipment may be broken into smaller loads, then trafficked overland by Mexican organizations. The majority of cocaine shipped through Mexico is transported to the United States by car, truck or bus, but a significant amount is smuggled aboard small aircraft. The Mexican groups, formerly limited primarily to trafficking heroin and marijuana, have eagerly expanded their role as middlemen between Colombian traffickers and American consumers.
An estimated 18 percent (15 tons in 1984) of the cocaine trafficked into the United States is exported from South America by sea vessel. All types of ships are used for smuggling, from small high-speed cigarette boats to large commercial cargo carriers. Colombians dominate maritime cocaine smuggling, and most shipments depart that country's north coastline, which features three major seaports and countless debarkation ports for smaller craft. Approximately one-half of the cocaine exported by sea is concealed in commercial vessels, and a smaller percentage is shipped in private boats which are frequently outfitted with special compartments designed for drug storage. Small amounts of cocaine are also often shipped on with marijuana on non-commercial smuggling vessels.
Maritime trafficking routes have shifted significantly in the past five years, primarily in response to increased law enforcement surveillance. While a major portion of the maritime traffic formerly flowed directly into South Florida, traffickers now increasingly use the longer eastern routes through the Caribbean to the Mid-Atlantic and New England coasts, as well as direct routes to the U.S. west coast. These routes make smuggling more expensive for traffickers, since they require larger vessels, larger crews and more sophisticated electronic equipment.
Case Study: Devoe Airlines
Devoe Airlines was a scheduled commuter air service operating between Miami and smaller Florida cities during the early 1980's. Owned by Miami pilot Jack Devoe, the business was essentially a front for a Colombian drug trafficking operation, which included regular large quantity marijuana and cocaine smuggling. In total, 8 to 10 contract pilots employed by Devoe were involved in over 100 trafficking flights over a five year period and carried roughly 7,000 pounds of cocaine from South America to the United States. Jack Devoe estimates that his flying organization grossed millions of dollars each month during peak smuggling periods.
Devoe's trafficking pilots initially travelled non-stop routes between the United States and Colombia, but developed a transshipment point on Little Derby Island in the Bahamas for purposes of "security . . . [and] police protection" in the 1980's. Devoe hired six to eight employees to work as needed at the island base to unload and repackage drug shipments. There was no interference from Bahamian law enforcement at the Little Darby base "as long as the payments [to officials] were on time."
Typically operating mid-size turbo-prop aircraft, Devoe pilots departed for Colombia either from the base at Little Derby Island or from Florida airports. Their route took them through the Windward Passage generally to Colombian locations about 60 miles south of the equator. In the early stages of the operation, landings were made at official Colombian airports including the airfields at Santa Marta and Riohacha. In at least one instance, cocaine was openly loaded onto the smuggling aircraft at Riohacha airport. In the early 1980's Devoe shifted landings to clandestine jungle airstrips maintained by the organization's cocaine supplier, Pepe Cabrera. This system streamlined the trafficking process by eliminating transport of the cocaine to an airport. The cocaine shipment was loaded directly onto the aircraft near the strip, where the plane was simultaneously prepared for the return flight.
Generally, Devoe pilots returned to the United States within one day. Their preferred return route extended along the Colombia/Venezuela border, over Haiti, and to the Bahamian base on Little Derby Island. There, cocaine was sealed into the wing fuel tanks of a small aircraft and flown directly into South Florida for delivery to the cartel's representative there.
The Devoe organization's methods for avoiding interdiction between South America and the United States were relatively simple and typical of such smuggling operations. A Devoe pilot learned the frequencies of DEA surveillance aircraft on one occasion by "acting like a helicopter buff" inspecting a DEA Cobra pursuit helicopter parked near the Devoe hangar. Inside the helicopter the pilot copied the frequencies from a clipboard hanging on the instrument panel. As the pilot explained to the Commission:
By [subsequently] using our scanner and our knowledge of the frequencies in use, we could monitor the activities of DEA planes . . . we could learn not only the activities of the planes, but also go up and check the plane out. By learning what types of aircraft DEA was using we could plan our own strategy more effectively . . .
Devoe also regularly sent "cover-flight" aircraft ahead of the smuggling planes along the trafficking route to monitor DEA and Customs Service surveillance patrols by radio. These planes, which carried no drug cargo, were also used to decoy pursuit aircraft. Once in the United States, Devoe strategy for clearing Customs inspection was to:
". . . act normally and file a flight plan, come in and land, and let them inspect the airplane . . . Customs inspectors were far less interested in a lengthy examination of my plane if I came in on a Sunday afternoon in the middle of the televised football game. If the Dolphins were playing, that was even better."
Using these tactics, Devoe Airlines was able to complete over 100 trafficking flights from Colombia without interference from law enforcement authorities.
Case Study: Barry Seal
Adler Berriman Seal, a former TWA 747 captain, flew cocaine from Colombia to the United States for over seven years during the late 1970's and early 1980's. Seal was recruited as a trafficking pilot by a personal friend who worked for the Colombian cocaine trafficking organization headed by Jorge Ochoa, and eventually worked directly with that organization's leadership.
Initially, Seal flew direct trafficking flights between Louisiana, and Colombia. He piloted a number of different smuggling aircraft, the largest of which was a Vietnam-vintage C-123 capable of holding tons of packaged cocaine. Seal always departed and returned to his Louisiana base at night to reduce chances of interdiction. His typical route took him over the Yucatan Peninsula (not over the more heavily patrolled Yucatan channel) and directly over Central America to the eastern tip of Honduras, then south to any one of a number of airstrips and airports in north central Colombia.
According to Seal, the Ochoa organization paid Colombian officials bribes of $10,000 to $25,000, per flight for a "window," i.e., a specific time, position and altitude designated for the smuggling flight's penetration of the Colombian air space. If this payment was not made, the aircraft was susceptible to interception by Colombian authorities. Seal generally arrived in Colombia at dawn. His aircraft was loaded with cocaine and refueled within an hour, sometimes within fifteen minutes; and he returned immediately to the United States.
Seal used two fairly simple techniques to avoid interdiction on his return trip to the United States: both were effective because of the heavy helicopter traffic running between the Gulf Coast States and the hundreds of oil rigs located off shore. First, when he reached the middle of the Gulf on his return trip, Seal slowed his aircraft to 110-120 knots and was thus perceived by monitoring radar as a helicopter, not a plane. Secondly, at a distance of about 50 miles off the United States coast, he dropped the aircraft to an altitude of 500-1000 feet in order to co-mingle with the helicopter traffic, and thereby arouse even less suspicion.
Once in United States airspace, Seal proceeded to prearranged points 40 to 50 miles inland. The points were mapped out in advance with Loran C, a long-range navigational instrument. Further inland, he was generally joined by a helicopter. The two aircraft proceeded to a drop zone, where the helicopter hovered close to the ground. Seal then dropped the load of cocaine from the airplane on a parachute; the helicopter picked up the load from the drop zone and delivered it to waiting automobiles, which eventually moved the cocaine to Miami. Seal proceeded to land his drug-free aircraft at any nearby airport.
Seal was well paid for his services. He claims his top fee for smuggling a kilogram of cocaine was $5,000; an average load was 300 kilograms. His most profitable single load netted him $1.5 million. He was never apprehended in connection with this operation.
Specialized Electronics: The Smuggler's Edge
Like many trafficking pilots today, both Seal and Devoe relied on sophisticated electronic equipment to maintain and secure communications within their organization and to monitor law enforcement surveillance efforts. Most devices used, while expensive, are readily available in the United States, and trafficking organizations, of course, fund the purchase of any equipment that will facilitate their operations. Seal, for example, once spent over $200,000 cash on communication and surveillance equipment for the Ochoa cocaine trafficking organization here in the United States in a two-day period. Payments for this type of equipment are almost always made in cash - sometimes suitcases full of cash - and are rarely refused.
The communication devices most commonly used by traffickers include state of the art radio equipment, communication scramblers, pocket pagers and encrypting devices. The equipment is used to prevent law enforcement interception of communication between traffickers. A scrambler, for example, attaches to an ordinary radio, and "scrambles" the normal radio frequency with a number of different codes. Only someone with a receiver coded to the particular scrambler frequency can decipher the transmitted message; the transmission is unintelligible to all other receivers. Digital encryption devices are used to send messages in code, and are often secured so that they can be accessed only after a security number is punched directly into the device. The security feature allows only members of the trafficking organization, who know the access code, to send or decipher coded messages. The speed with which a digital message is transmitted precludes radio tracking, at least by traditional triangulation.
Among the other specialized devices used by traffickers to detect and avoid law enforcement surveillance are radar altimeters, beacon-interrogating digital radar, position tracking equipment and long-range navigation instruments. Latest generation night vision goggles are also frequently used by traffickers flying at low altitudes in darkness. The strap-on goggles intensify any available light by a factor of 50,000 and greatly reduce a smuggler's risk of interdiction by allowing him to fly his aircraft without lights.
The Combined Effort
A number of independent Colombian trafficking organizations, among them the largest and most powerful operations, work in collaboration on individual smuggling ventures. As described by DEA special agent Michael Fredericks, the resulting organization is fluid:
There is a level of organization that may involve . . . a handful of people at the top. . . Below that level . . . there are many workers who move between one organization and another. . . It seems that in the Colombian organizations, a laboratory operator may work for 1 [specific] trafficker . . . and not even be aware of it simple because of the levels of insulation.
At the time of the preparation of this report, three men, Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria, Jorge Luis Ochoa Vasques, and Carlos Enrique Lehder-Rivas, were reported to control the most significant trafficking organizations in Colombia. Known as "Los Grandes Mafiosos" in the Colombian press, each directs a separate organization, but the organizations work in concert and exchange personnel and equipment in various instances to maximize efficiency and profit. The resulting cartel system affords these traffickers numerous advantages, among them control over the price and the quality of Colombian cocaine, greater access to smuggling and processing equipment, and a wide variety of methods by which to avoid law enforcement.
A chart detailing a temporary cooperative venture based in Medellin, Colombia, between the Pablo Escobar organization and the Jorge Ochoa organization was confiscated from a mid-level trafficker involved in the operation, and was provided to the Commission by the Drug Enforcement Administration (Figure 2). As diagrammed, the Escobar and Ochoa organizations combined and divided the trafficking responsibilities typically completed by a single organization. The same component parts - labor, processing, transportation, finance and enforcement - were carried over from the individual organizations, with the Escobar group taking responsibility for production activities, and the Ochoa group handling enforcement and finances.
Colombia Cracks Down
Through the 1970's cocaine traffickers operated throughout Colombia with little interference, and in fact with considerable support from the Colombian government. The situation changed in April 1984 when drug traffickers assassinated Colombia's Minister of Justice, Rodrigo Lara Bonilla. Lara's assassination came two months after he authorized a raid on a major cocaine processing plant known as Tranquilandia in Southeastern Colombia's Llanos region, which resulted in the destruction of over $1 billion worth of cocaine. Following Lara's assassination, Colombian President Belisario Betancur Cuartas declared a "war without quarter" on all drug smugglers and signed extradition orders for a number of known major traffickers. President Betancur also shifted trafficking trials to Colombia's military courts, increased eradication and interdiction efforts within his country, and increased regulation of those chemicals necessary for processing coca base into cocaine.
President Betancur's actions have had important ramifications both for traffickers and for other South and Central American governments. When the intensified Colombian programs became effective, a number of major traffickers, among them Escobar, Lehder and Ochoa, went into hiding and moved their processing operations to neighboring countries. In 1984 processing laboratories as well as stockpiles of essential conversion chemicals were discovered and destroyed in Panama, Venezuela, Mexico and Canada. Evidence suggests that significant processing activity is now also taking place in Nicaragua and Brazil. The Colombian regulation of ether and other essential precursor chemicals has resulted in an increase in cocaine processing activity in the United States: 21 processing laboratories were discovered and destroyed in South Florida in 1984 as opposed to 11 in 1983.
In March 1985 despite his status as a fugitive, Carlos Lehder appeared on Colombian television, filmed live from a jungle clearing by a Spanish film crew. Lehder used the television opportunity, which he had arranged, to appeal to the Colombian revolutionary organizations to participate in the "cocaine bonanza . . . the arm of the struggle against America." He also characterized cocaine as the "Achilles heel of American imperialism." Lehder disappeared into the jungle after the interview and remains at large, presumably in the remote jungles of Colombia.
Traditional Organized Crime: La Cosa Nostra and the French Connection
Heroin trafficking in this country first became big business in the 1920's, when organized criminals based in New York City's Jewish community began to control the importation and distribution of the drug. By the late 1930's, La Cosa Nostra joined the Jewish groups in the heroin enterprise, importing the drug from France, Asia and the Mideast. When these sources became inaccessible during World War II, Mexico became the major U.S. heroin supplier.
After the war, La Cosa Nostra took control of America's heroin market, this time importing most of its drug supply from Italian refineries. When the Italian government banned the manufacture of heroin in the early 1950's, La Cosa Nostra traffickers were forced to look to other sources. A new system was quickly devised, by which Turkish morphine base was refined to heroin in Marseilles, then shipped to Montreal or Sicily. Organized crime groups located in these transshipment points then sent the heroin directly to the United States. This arrangement, popularly known as the "French Connection," allowed La Cosa Nostra to monopolize the heroin trade from the 1980's through the early 1970's. During the peak French Connection years, the LCN controlled an estimated 95 percent of all of the heroin entering New York City, as well as most of the heroin distributed throughout the United States.
The La Cosa Nostra heroin monopoly lasted until 1972, when under diplomatic pressure from the United States, Turkey banned opium production and the French Connection collapsed. Amsterdam replaced Marseilles as the center of European heroin traffic, and Chicago, Los Angeles and Miami joined New York City as major U.S. distribution centers. Other trafficking groups rose to compete with the LCN for heroin dollars in New York City and throughout the country.
Source Country Traffickers: Mexico
In the five years after the collapse of the French Connection, Mexico became the major source of U.S. heroin. Mexico's rise was logical: the country contains extensive regions suitable for both opium cultivation and refining and shares a lightly guarded 2,000 mile border with the United States. Mexicans could manufacture heroin and smuggle it into the United States with little risk of detection. This simplified trafficking system resulted in increased Mexican heroin availability in the United States.
For generations, opium has been grown in remote areas of Mexico's Sierra Madre Mountain states of Durango, Sinaloa and Chihuahua. Culiacan, on the western side of the Sierra Madre, and Durango to the east, developed in the 1970's as major production centers for heroin destined for U.S. distribution. Trafficking organizations are now entrenched in these areas, and are involved in all phases of the heroin manufacture and distribution process. Opium gum is collected by peasants in isolated mountain areas and is transported by mule or carried by hand to nearby mountain villages. Typically, village middlemen sell the opium to a drug trafficking organization boss, who moves drugs to an organization-held laboratory for processing to heroin. Mexican couriers then transport the heroin to the members of the trafficking organization in the United States. The major Mexican heroin trafficking organizations supplying heroin to America are generally extended familial organizations, but loyal workers sometimes are given status as "quasi-family" members of the groups. The organizations work to eliminate competition and to control as completely as possible all aspects of the heroin trade. Members act as opium cultivators, village middlemen, and heroin brokers and distributors. In the United States, the organization typically controls distribution from the wholesaler to the retail distributor, but has little or no involvement in street distribution. This is seen as an unnecessarily risky and low-profit aspect of the business, and is left to outsiders.
Violence is an integral part of Mexican trafficking. Organization members provide cultivators with semi-automatic and automatic weapons to protect their crops; weapons are used throughout the trafficking system to eliminate informants, and to intimidate competitors and law enforcement officials. Corruption of Mexican police officials is well-documented and is essential to the smooth operation of the Mexican trafficking organizations.
In 1984, Mexican traffickers provided 32 percent share of the heroin consumed in the United States. The figure is expected to rise over the next several years due to the continued devaluation of the peso and improved agricultural technology.
Case Study: The Herrera Family
Since the early 1970's the Jamie Herrera-Navarres organization has been a major heroin smuggling power operative between Mexico and the United States. The Herrera organization is a confederation of families related by blood and marriage, although some non-family members have been accepted into the group over time. Older family members process opium and morphine base, younger members handle the drug sales and shipments in Mexico and in the United States. The Herrera organization is now estimated to have 3,000 to 5,000 members, a significant portion of whom are naturalized American citizens and illegal aliens residing in this country.
Despite the 1978 conviction and incarceration of Jamie Herrera, and several key family members, the organization remains active. In July 1985, 135 persons in the United States, comprising eight separate Herrera-related distribution rings, were indicted in Chicago on drug trafficking charges. These Herrera groups allegedly trafficked heroin and marijuana from Mexico through El Paso to a middleman in Texas. From Texas, the drugs were shipped to Chicago, then distributed throughout the country. This Herrera enterprise, only a small fragment of the total organization, is estimated to have had gross annual profits of over $200 million. The arrests are expected to have a significant effect on the Herrera organization, if only on a temporary basis.
Source Country Traffickers: Southeast Asia
Mexican heroin production decreased in the late 1970's due to enforcement, eradication and poor weather conditions. By 1980, Mexico provided only 25 percent of the heroin consumed in the United Stated, down from a peak level of 80 percent in 1975. At the same time, heroin production in Southeast Asia accelerated dramatically. By 1976, the "Golden Triangle" of Burma, Thailand and Laos supplied more than a third of the heroin consumed in the United States; Mexico supplied the remainder. Golden Triangle heroin first gained popularity with American servicemen stationed in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War because it was readily available, inexpensive, and considerably more pure than Mexican heroin. After the war, Golden Triangle heroin was exported to the United States in increasing amounts.
Nearly 90 percent of the Golden Triangle opium is currently produced in Burma. Two-thirds of this crop is produced in the northeast area of the country, where control is shared by the Burmese Communist Party (BCP) and the Shan United Army (SUA). Both groups were at one time political insurgent organizations but are now almost entirely devoted to obtaining profit for the production, smuggling and sale of heroin base. They derive considerable income from "taxes" and fees they levy on opium growers and heroin producers and traffickers. This income is used to purchase weapons, to be utilized not in furtherance of political goals, but for protection of each group's narcotics enterprise. Traditionally, the two groups have coexisted peacefully: the BCP has acted as the major opium supplier in Southeast Asia and the SUA has been the area's major refiner and trafficker. The BCP has recently become involved in refining and distribution activities, and the organizations are currently in conflict.
Opium and morphine base produced in northeastern Burma transported by horse and donkey caravans to refineries along the Thailand-Burma border for conversion to heroin and heroin base. Most of the finished products are shipped across the border into various towns in North Thailand and down to Bangkok for further distribution to international markets. In the past major ethnic Chinese traffickers in Bangkok have controlled much of the foreign sales and movement of Southeast Asian heroin from Thailand, but a combination of law enforcement pressure, publicity and a regional drought has significantly reduced their role. As a consequence, many less-predominant traffickers in Bangkok and other parts of Thailand now control smaller quantities of the heroin going to international markets.
Although Thailand is the primary transit center for Southeast Asian heroin destined for international markets, alternate trafficking routes are increasingly utilized as a result of Thailand's sustained enforcement actions. Some opium, morphine base, and heroin base are moved South through Burma to southern Thailand and Malaysia for conversion to heroin in laboratories along the Thailand/Malaysia border. Refined heroin is also trafficked from Burma to India, then to the West.
Heroin from Southeast Asia is most frequently brought to the United States by couriers, typically Thai and U.S. nationals and Hong Kong Chinese, traveling on commercial airlines. California and Hawaii are the primary U.S. entry points for Golden Triangle heroin, but small percentages of the drug are trafficked into New York City and Washington D.C. While Southeast Asian groups have had success in trafficking heroin to the United States, they initially had difficulty arranging street level distribution. However, with the incarceration of Asian traffickers in American prisons during the 1970's, contacts between Asian and American prisoners developed. These contacts have allowed Southeast Asian traffickers access to individuals and organizations distributing heroin at the retail level.
Chinese organized crime groups, known as Triads, located primarily in Hong Kong, and their U.S. counterparts, Tongs, are positioned to participate in Southeast Asian heroin traffic, but the extent of their activity in these enterprises is not known at the present time. These organizations provide Asians direct access to criminal groups in the United States, and could potentially assume a significant role in U.S. heroin trafficking activities. Currently, there are major Triad organizations in New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, San Francisco, and Toronto.
Source Country Traffickers: Southwest Asia
Opium production in Southeast Asia was significantly reduced in the late 1970's and early 1980's due to a prolonged drought. This decrease, along with the unstable political climate in the region caused by the fall of the ruling governments in South Vietnam and Laos, resulted in a reduction of Southeast Asian heroin exports to the United States. During this period, opium production in the Golden Crescent area of Southwest Asia, comprising the common border regions of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran, markedly increased. In 1979 the Golden Crescent became the primary U.S. heroin source. Southwest Asia continues to be this country's major supplier: over one-half of the heroin entering the United States in 1984 originated as opium in the Golden Crescent.
The surge in Golden Crescent heroin exports to the United States can be attributed to a number of factors. Opium has always been grown in the region, but traditionally, opium grown in Afghanistan and Pakistan was shipped directly to Iran to supply that country's one million opium addicts. The situation changed dramatically after the 1980 fundamentalist revolution in Iran, as political and social instability allowed greatly increased domestic opium production and curtailed the demand for opium from Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Iranian market was further closed to outsiders by the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which blocked several of the traditional smuggling routes into Iran.
Concurrent with the reduction in Iranian demand for non-domestic opium, growers in Afghanistan and Pakistan harvested record crops. The opium crop in Pakistan alone increased by 400 percent between 1974-1979, from 200 to 800 metric tons. Consequently Pakistani and Afghan traffickers learned to refine their opium into heroin, and sought new markets for their product, mainly in Western Europe and the and the United States.
Southwest Asian opium is grown in remote mountain areas and generally is transported to crude laboratories in the Pakistan/Afghanistan border areas. Most of the refineries are located in Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province or Afghanistan's Nangarhai Province; many are clustered in the area of the Khyber Pass. Refined heroin leaves Pakistan via several routes: through Baluchistan to Iran and beyond; by sea through Karachi to Bombay and on to the Arabian Gulf States or Europe; overland through the Lahore area enroute to transit points in India; or by air through Islamabad or Karachi.
Southwest Asian heroin is typically smuggled into the United States concealed in legitimate shipments of air and sea cargo, such as textiles or sports equipment manufactured by Pakistani companies, or it is carried by air couriers. Couriers generally travel on commercial carriers, and many have connections with airline crews and station managers. The international postal system is also commonly used to ship heroin from Pakistan directly to the United States in sealed newspapers and periodicals.
Golden Crescent heroin is trafficked into the United States by a variety of narcotics organizations. The following is an overview of some of the more significant groups involved in the Southwest Asian heroin trade.
Pakistani nationals are responsible for trafficking a significant percentage of Golden Crescent heroin in the United States, especially in the Northeast. The Pakistanis do not have a sophisticated retail sales network in the United States and typically rely on family or Pakistani friends in this country to distribute drugs. They also have relied on black trafficking organizations in Los Angeles, Detroit and New York, and with Italian organized crime in New York City. One Pakistani distribution system was described in testimony before this Commission by a Pakistani national who was incarcerated for his involvement in a distribution network. The Commission witness has relatives living both in Lahore, Pakistan, and in the United States; he was a resident of Houston, Texas and was employed as an engineer while involved in heroin trafficking. In the heroin operation, a family member in Lahore sent couriers to JFK airport in New York with heroin concealed in false-bottom luggage. From JFK, the couriers traveled "in transit" to La Guardia, then on to Toronto. Because of their "in transit" status, Customs Service officials did not search the travelers in the United States, and Canadian Customs inspection was not difficult to clear.
In Canada, traffickers often held a particular heroin shipment for three to six months, until appropriate distribution contacts were established and it was certain that law enforcement officials were not aware of the shipment. At that time, distribution contacts traveled by automobile to Toronto, picked up a portion or all of the heroin shipment, and drove the heroin into the United States without Customs interdiction. This particular network supplied heroin to Seattle, Houston, San Francisco, New York and Las Vegas. The contacts were all related by blood or marriage.
Pakistanis also rely on the international postal system to move drugs from Southwest Asia to the United States. In July 1983, for example, U.S. Customs officials at JFK Airport seized one kilogram of heroin concealed in rolled newspapers destined for Pakistani nationals residing in New York. The package had been sent from the United Arab Emirates. Two other packages, each containing one-half kilogram of heroin, were mailed to Berkeley, California from the same source. Rolled newspapers and magazines can conceal up to one kilogram of heroin and are generally sealed in plastic. Drugs are also sent through the mail concealed in shipments of textiles, clothing and other durable goods.
A portion of Golden Crescent heroin passes through Lebanon en route to the United States, thus affording Lebanese nationals an opportunity to become involved in the trafficking activity. A significant percentage of the heroin exported from Lebanon leaves via Damascus International Airport.
In the United States, trafficking by Lebanese nationals is especially prevalent in the Northeast. In one network, non-Lebanese couriers primarily from Canada traveled to Damascus and Beirut to pick up heroin which they then transported to Houston, Detroit and New York via commercial carrier. Heroin was concealed in false-bottom luggage and inside photo albums. The heroin was transferred to Lebanese nationals living in Toronto and Ontario, Canada, and in various cities in the United States. Some of the money generated from the sale of this heroin was laundered in banks in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
A proportion of the heroin traditionally distributed abroad through the Pakistan cities of Karachi, Peshawar and Quetta is now being shipped through Bombay and New Dehli. Traffickers smuggle Southwest Asian heroin into India along the Indo-Pakistan border and transport it overland to the Indian cities; Southeast Asian heroin is brought into Bombay and Calcutta by sea and overland routes. Bombay, Calcutta and New Dehli are now major staging, shipping and trafficking centers for heroin smuggled to the West. Trafficking activity is frequent at Perlane Airport in Dehli and at Bombay's Sahar International Airport, and Indian harbors and airports are used by Pakistani, Afghan and Indian traffickers as points of embarkation to Western destinations.
In the past three years, West African countries, especially Nigeria, have been documented as transshipments centers for Golden Crescent heroin. Nigerian couriers based in Lagos travel to Pakistan to obtain heroin, then continue on commercial flights to their final destinations, or return to Nigeria to repackage the narcotics into smaller amounts for smuggling to the West.
A number of loosely associated Nigerian heroin trafficking organizations have connections both with suppliers in Pakistan and with retailers in Western Europe and the United States. Typically, Nigerian couriers travel directly to Karachi on commercial aircraft and purchase heroin in that city, but some couriers continue to Peshawar to make their purchases. Couriers return to Nigeria transiting other countries in Africa and Europe. A different group of couriers, usually students or poor residents of Lagos, traffic the drugs to Europe or the United States.
Couriers typically enter the United States directly through JFK airport in New York although in some cases, they come to this country via cities in Europe and Canada. Drugs are concealed in body cavities, and in false-bottom suitcases.
After the heroin arrives in the United States, it is sold only to one or two American distributors in a given area. Distribution networks are most active in New York City and Washington, D.C. and are operative in Los Angeles, Houston and Boston. DEA reports that individuals in nearly every community of Nigerian nationals in the United States has some link to heroin traffickers and couriers. Profits from heroin sales are laundered through banks in the United States in Britain.
The Post-French Connection LCN
Traditional organized crime continues to play a significant role in this country's heroin trade through the 1980's. The LCN's long established connections with criminal organizations in Sicily facilitate the movement of heroin from Europe to the United States, and while Sicily is no longer a major refinery for heroin, the country is a major transshipment center for Southwest and Southeast Asian heroin. Sicilian organizations supply LCN affiliates with heroin; LCN networks either distribute the drug themselves or sell it in large quantities to major distributors.
The LCN As A Supplier: The Nicky Barnes Operation
Black criminal groups have controlled some percentage of heroin traffic in New York City since the 1940's. Their influence increased significantly in the early 1970's, after the French Connection. The first major independent black trafficking organization, a group of over one hundred distributors and couriers, was headed by Charles Green. The Green organization imported heroin and cocaine from South America and distributed the drugs throughout New York City during the late 1960's. Green was arrested in 1970, control of this heroin network passed to Frank Matthews. Matthews was brought in to the heroin business by Louis Cirillo, a major LCN associate, and was continually supplied with LCN heroin.
Leroy "Nicky" Barnes succeeded Matthews in 1971. Under his leadership, the organization controlled heroin sales and manufacture throughout New York State into Canada and Pennsylvania. The Barnes operation was well-organized and lucrative. By 1976, Barnes had at least seven major lieutenants under his direction; each of them controlled a dozen mid-level distributors, who in turn supplied up to forty street-level retailers. Barnes at all times remained well insulated from the daily trafficking activities, and maintained a wealthy lifestyle. He owned five homes, a Mercedes, a Maserati, several Lincolns, Cadillacs and Thunderbirds, and hundreds of suits and coats. He estimates that his total trafficking income was at least several million dollars.
Barnes joined with six other major New York dealers to form a heroin cartel called the "Council" in the mid 1970's. Members of the Council pooled funds to purchase multi-kilo amounts of heroin, worked to ensure a consistent supply of the drug in their distribution area, combined their "cutting" and distribution networks in certain cases, and often used a common sources for diluents, weapons, automobiles and other resources. The Council had specific "departments" which arranged legal services, security and enforcement, and financial services including money laundering.
Barnes' most significant source of heroin, to whom he directed other Council members, was LCN associate "Natty" Madonna. Despite Barnes' assertion and belief that the Council worked completely independently of the Mafia, through the Madonna connection, LCN heroin was prevalent in Harlem traffic from 1972 to 1976.
The Asian-LCN Links
La Cosa Nostra actively seeks out Asian nationals as connections to heroin sources in Southeast Asia. In testimony before the President's Commission on organized crime, Franklin Liu, a veteran Hong Kong clothier, explained how he was recruited as a courier for a New York La Cosa Nostra family involved in heroin trafficking. Liu, who held a legitimate four year business visa which allowed him to travel without restriction, was first contacted by Antonio Turano, a reputed member of the Sicilian Mafia, in connection with Turano's money laundering operations. In one instance, Turano brought Liu a suitcase filled with $400,000 cash, and requested that Liu wire the money to a bank in Zurich. Turano met with Liu in Milan in the course of the operation to make certain that the money had been wired without incident.
At a later date, after Liu had successfully participated in a number of money laundering operations, Turano asked Liu if he had any connections to drug traffickers in the Far East; Liu did not. Turano arranged a connection, and agreed to pay Liu $5,000 for every kilo of heroin he trafficked into the United States. Liu was subsequently contacted by Turano's agent, a Thai woman, and arranged to meet her at a hotel in New York City. When they met, each held half of a one dollar bill given to them by Turano as identification. Liu gave the woman his car keys; the next day she returned the car with heroin in the trunk and requested a payment of $40,000 in cash and a $60,000 bank check. When Liu went to collect the money from Turano, he found that Turano had been arrested. Liu was subsequently arrested and convicted on charges of conspiracy to import heroin in connection with this case.
The Pizza Connection
During the late 1970's and early 1980's members of La Cosa Nostra in the United States allegedly cooperated with the Sicilian Mafia in a drug trafficking conspiracy which resulted in the importation of heroin worth over $1.6 billion into the United States. In April, 1984, 38 individuals were indicted on charges related to the trafficking operation, popularly known as the "Pizza Connection." The network that developed to facilitate the traffic in this enterprise was reputedly one of the largest heroin importation operations in history, and used pizza parlors throughout this country to distribute heroin smuggled from Southeast and Southwest Asia via Sicily to the United States. Additional heroin that was trafficked through this system was produced in laboratories operating in Sicily.
According to the indictment in the case, the "Pizza Connection" heroin network relied upon a faction of the New York Bonanno organized crime family headed by Salvatore Catalano to distribute the heroin in this country. In turn, the heroin business of this Bonanno crime faction was tied directly to organized criminal groups in Sicily, the rest of Italy, Switzerland, Spain, and Brazil. Direct evidence of the existence of the network was first obtained in 1980 when couriers were observed transferring enormous amounts of cash through investment houses and banks in New York city to Italy and Switzerland. Tens of millions of dollars derived from heroin sales in this country were transferred overseas in this fashion, apparently in violation of the Bank Secrecy Act.
Investigations related to the "Pizza Connection" case have revealed that factions of the Sicilian Mafia operate in the United States independently of the American La Cosa Nostra. While the two groups apparently cooperate on certain ventures such as the "Pizza Connection" heroin importation operations, they appear to be distinct and separate organizations under different leadership.
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