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The Heroin Trade

The heroin trade is a major global industry. In the United States, it is dominated by Mexican transnational criminal organizations (TCOs), which are commonly known as drug cartels. To move their products, the cartels rely on a complex network of production, transportation, and distribution channels. Their proximity to the U.S. border allows them to move drugs effectively by land.1
Also contributing to the opioid threat is the relatively new arrival of illicit fentanyl and fentanyl analogs—extremely potent synthetic opioid drugs, often sourced from Mexico and China, that carry a dangerously high risk of overdose.

Where Heroin Comes From

Heroin is a powerful opioid and chemical modification of morphine, which is a naturally occurring opiate alkaloid substance derived from opium poppy plants. Most opium poppies grow in Southwest and Southeast Asia, Mexico, and Colombia.6

While Southwest Asia supplies most of the world’s heroin, only a small fraction of that supply ends up the U.S., and only then to a few major cities throughout the country. Southeast Asian production of heroin has also been on the decline since 2000.4

Most heroin in the U.S. is produced in Mexico and Colombia.1 The proximity of Mexico and Colombia to the U.S. has allowed cartels there to transport drugs far more easily than criminal organizations from Southwest or Southeast Asia.

Currently, 2 major Mexican drug cartels are fighting for control of the major smuggling routes. This war has led to the death of more than 100,000 people in Mexico.3 The Mexican cartels traffic several types of illicit drugs in addition to heroin, including methamphetamine, cocaine, marijuana, and MDMA.2

The U.S. drug market is also divided into regions: Mexican and South American white powder heroin dominate markets east of the Mississippi, while Mexican white powder, black tar, and crudely manufactured heroin are commonly found west of the Mississippi.4

Illegal Fentanyl Manufacturing

In recent years, the fentanyl and heroin trade have become intertwined. Illicitly manufactured fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid that comes from both China and Mexico. Fentanyl is sometimes mixed into heroin or other drugs, while at other times it is pressed into pill form.4

Fentanyl is 50-100 times more powerful than morphine. When it is mixed with heroin (or misidentified as heroin) users are at increased risk of overdose.4 However, no matter what form of the drug is purchased on the street, all heroin produces a high when smoked, snorted, or injected and brings with it the risk of overdose and addiction.

How Heroin Gets to the United States

Most of the heroin coming into the U.S. arrives through the Southwestern border, primarily through California, Arizona, and Texas.2 It is typically hidden in vehicles that cross the border legally, or, less often, by couriers on commercial aircraft.4

Cartels prefer to pack heavy loads of heroin into personal vehicles or tractor trailers, concealing the drugs inside specially designed cavities or in objects such as coolers or soda cans.1,3 Once the heroin reaches the U.S., it is taken to stash houses then transported along major American highways until it reaches key distribution points throughout the country.3

Cartels also use drug mules, who are hired to carry heroin on their bodies. They cross the border illegally on foot and smuggle in smaller amounts of heroin. When these operatives reach the U.S., they pass the drugs to a cartel contact.3

Major airports in Miami and New York are main arrival points for heroin smuggled by air.4 Some traffickers use passengers or crewmembers on cruise ships and other commercial vessels to traffic heroin by sea.2

Dominican cartels sometimes smuggle and distribute Colombian heroin. The Dominican cartels buy Columbian heroin and smuggle it into the Northeastern and Southeastern U.S. In recent years, the Dominicans have expanded their distribution networks around major East Coast cities.2

West Africans are the primary traffickers of Southwest and Southeast Asian heroin into the U.S. Mules sent by West African drug cartels hide drugs on their bodies, in body cavities, or in their luggage. West African cartels also smuggle Asian heroin in mail and freight packages.2

Criminal gangs, including street, prison, and outlaw motorcycle gangs, are responsible for most of the retail distribution of illicit drugs. U.S.-based criminal gangs coordinate with Mexican drug cartels in major cities along the U.S.-Mexico border. 2 They help distribute drugs, enforce payments, and protect trafficking corridors.1

The Dangers of Trading Heroin

The heroin trade is extremely compartmentalized, which means that individual couriers typically don’t know where the drugs are coming from or where they’re going.3 As such, they assume full legal responsibility. They also get roped into a violent criminal world, where they risk being harmed by cartels or gangs.

In the U.S., drug trafficking carries serious penalties. The penalties for heroin trafficking depend on the amount of heroin in your possession, whether it is the first offense, and whether anyone was harmed in the process.

  • For a first offense of trafficking 100–999 grams of heroin mixture, a person faces a prison sentence of not less than 5 years but no more than 40 years and up to a $2 million individual fine.5
  • A second offense of trafficking 100–999 grams of heroin mixture can lead to a prison sentence of no less than 10 years and no more than life and up to a $4 million individual fine.5
  • A first offense of trafficking a kilogram or more of heroin mixture can lead to a prison sentence of no less than 10 years and no more than life, and up to a $4 million individual fine.5
  • A second offense of trafficking a kilogram or more of heroin mixture can lead to a prison sentence of no less than 20 years and no more than life, and up to an $8 million individual fine.5

If you or someone you know is abusing, dealing, or trafficking heroin, it is time to get help. With the rise of fentanyl and other additives, heroin is more dangerous than ever before. The violence surrounding the heroin trade is also high. Reach out before it’s too late.


  1. United States Department of Justice. (2015). 2015 National Drug Threat Assessment Summary.
  2. United States Department of Justice. (2011). National Drug Threat Assessment 2011.
  3. Giblin P. (2014). Heroin’s Hidden Journey. USA Today
  4. United States Department of Justice. (2017). 2017 National Drug Threat Assessment.
  5. Information for Financial Aid Professionals. Federal Trafficking Penalties.
  6. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018). Heroin.

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