Record amounts of heroin are smuggled through Arizona as overdose deaths rise statewide, nationally

A syringe used to shoot heroin rests on a sofa in a Yuma dopehouse on Nov. 21. (Photo by Danielle Grobmeier/Cronkite News)

Heroin is the number one drug threat in major communities across the country, with overdose deaths continuing to increase as more heroin is moved across the Southwest, according to a 2015 intelligence report by U.S Drug Enforcement Administration.

“Consequently, the western states’ roles as heroin transit areas are increasingly significant,” the report says. “DEA and local law enforcement reporting from several western states indicates heroin is transiting those areas in greater volumes and in larger shipment sizes.”

One of those major trafficking routes is here in Arizona where Pima and Pinal Counties are on the front lines of anti-smuggling efforts.

“Texas has a river … California, San Diego have a wall which actually does help and New Mexico, there’s a portion of it that is mountainous so it’s difficult to cross over,” said Pinal County Attorney Lando Voyles. “But Arizona has the widest, longest open border so we have 60 percent of the drug trafficking for the entire United States coming through our section of the border.”

Numbers from the Phoenix DEA division show seizures of heroin in Arizona steadily have increased from 163 kilograms in 2010 to 576 kilograms so far this year- or nearly 360 pounds, compared to nearly 1,300 pounds.

“So heroin is a drug that … the cartels have recently purified, so it’s not black tar anymore,” Voyles said. “Now it’s like white powder that kids think is safe. So they will snort it, eat it and don’t have to inject it like they used to and so, there has been a spike in that.”

Deaths involving heroin also are increasing at a much faster rate than other illicit drugs, the DEA’s intelligence report says. In 2013, 8,620 Americans died from heroin-related overdoses, nearly triple the number in 2010. In Arizona, heroin-related deaths increased from less than 50 in 2004 to nearly 200 in 2014, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services.

“I read a statistic in DEA that 80 percent of all heroin users started their addiction from prescription drugs. So if we can take that element out of it … that’s a significant impact for the onset of heroin addiction,” said DEA agent Erica Curry, a spokesperson for the agency. “We try to make Arizona a less desirable route for drug traffickers and that’s what we want to do, is hit them so hard that they don’t want to come through Arizona.”

Chris Platt, a detective with the Pinal County Sheriff’s anti-smuggling unit said cartels constantly change up their trafficking methods to avoid detection. Sometimes, they call 9-1-1 to report a fake accident to divert law enforcement agencies from the drug routes along Arizona’s interstate highways.
“It seems like over the past couple years, it’s really picked up just from what you see and what you hear,” he said. “We’re dealing with more of the aspect when it gets picked up from already traveling through the desert on one of the interstates and it’s going through Pinal County up through Phoenix.”

Voyles, Pinal County’s prosecutor, said his office and law enforcement also work with authorities on Tohono O’odham tribal lands in the Sonoran Desert of south central Arizona.

“We now we have authority to go on the reservations where the (trafficking) scouts are sitting on the mountain tops,” he said. “We pulled those scouts off the mountain tops and we pushed those traffickers outside of our county,” he said.

Pinal County and the Tohono O’odham reservation share the border with Mexico.

The DEA’s Curry said the area is sparsely populated which “creates a lot of opportunity for the Mexican cartels to exploit the vast desert area to bring the drugs into the country.”

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s annual National Survey on Drug Use and Health, the number of people using heroin is smaller than those who use other drugs like cocaine and pain pills. But those heroin numbers nearly doubled between 2007 and 2013 – increasing at a much faster rate than any other drug.

Dawn Mertz, executive director for Arizona High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, said that heroin abuse starts with opioid prescription drug misuse.

“When they can’t get anymore of those, heroin is cheaper and they become hooked on heroin,” Mertz said.