A lucrative partnership between Colombian and Mexican drug cartels is at the heart of Long Island's heroin scourge, with traffickers and dealers increasingly viewing Nassau and Suffolk as potential growth markets amid a crackdown on opioid pain pills, officials said.
Profits are soaring for those who make money off heroin in the region -- from cartel leaders to street dealers -- because of increased demand, an abundance of high-quality product flowing into the United States through Mexico, and low wholesale prices, drug enforcement authorities said.
The favorable economic conditions driving the heroin trade on Long Island and in the Northeast have contributed to a surge in fatal overdoses, authorities said, including more than 220 heroin deaths on Long Island over the past two years -- the most ever recorded.
Affluent New Yorkers and those living in the suburbs and rural areas are also using heroin at higher rates, a trend exemplified by the apparent overdose death this month of Oscar-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman in his Greenwich Village apartment, authorities said.
"Heroin traffickers here [Long Island and New York City] have recognized that there's a whole group of new potential customers who have emerged," said James Hunt, acting head of the Drug Enforcement Administration's New York office. "They realize that there's a whole generation that got hooked on prescription pills, as well as more affluent users, and see this as a way to bring new customers into their grasp."
Behind it all, officials said, is the Colombian-Mexican cartel alliance.
Those overseeing the U.S. heroin trade are as savvy and knowledgeable about regional market trends -- including the opioid crackdown -- as any corporate chief executive, DEA spokeswoman Erin Mulvey said.
"These are businessmen," Mulvey said. "They get in [to new markets] however they can."
Heroin believed to have been supplied by Colombian cartels and smuggled to the United States by their Mexican counterparts has been seized in criminal cases linked to Long Island, including the June 2013 conviction in Suffolk County of two Queens men, Carlos Melendez and Joel Guzman, for operating as major drug traffickers, authorities said. Prosecutors alleged the men kept heroin in a stash house in Queens and sent runners to Long Island to sell it, clearing $60,000 a week.
Tracing the recent surge
More than 660,000 Americans used heroin in 2012 -- nearly twice as many as five years earlier, according to U.S. government statistics. The increase has been driven by transformative changes in the heroin trade, authorities said.
Local heroin markets were once controlled by Italian-American organized-crime syndicates that sold heroin made from opium poppies grown in Asia, DEA officials said.
But in the 1990s, Colombian drug cartels specializing in cocaine distribution successfully began growing their own opium in that country's temperate climate, allowing them to add heroin production to their operations, officials said.
With infrastructure from their cocaine operations already in place, the cartels quickly became the primary exporters of heroin to the United States, surpassing Turkey, Afghanistan and other Asian countries, which still supply most global heroin markets.
By growing, smuggling and selling their own product, the Colombians were able to usurp New York crime syndicates as the primary movers of heroin in the region. Their product was stronger, too, some of it registering at 100 percent purity, Hunt said.
"It was strong, and it was cheap," Hunt said. "Things were changing."
In the early 2000s, an increase in law enforcement seizures of heroin brought to the United States by air and sea led the Colombian cartels to rethink their strategy. The Colombian cartels intensified their relationships with major Mexican cartels, selling more heroin to those organizations, which smuggled it over the porous U.S. border, officials said.
"They took the infrastructure from the Colombians, then the Colombians took a backseat and insulated themselves while the Mexican cartels took more of the risks," Hunt said.
Today, the most notorious and feared Mexican cartels -- including the Sinaloa Federation, the Gulf Cartel and the Juarez Cartel -- are among the primary traffickers of heroin sold in New York, Hunt said.
'Too easy to get'
"It's just too easy to get," said Dr. Jeffrey Reynolds, executive director of the Long Island Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence. "And the stigma surrounding heroin use is largely gone."
In addition to cartel members, the heroin business employs thousands of mill workers, delivery people, enforcers and street crews throughout the Northeast, including many based in New York City, officials said. Organizations use a range of methods to transport heroin, including hiding it in fake candies, lollipops and bananas, officials said.
Huge amounts of the drug are reaching New York despite record-setting seizures, officials said. The amount of heroin seized by the DEA in New York State rose 67 percent over the past four years, with the New York office seizing 144 kilograms of heroin worth about $43 million in 2013 alone, the agency said.
The heroin that makes it to market is taking lives at an alarming pace, officials said, rivaling the overdose epidemics of the 1970s and early '80s.
On LI, a young life lost
Among those killed by heroin overdose on Long Island was Jaclyn Scarabino of Melville, whose family said she was given the drug for free at first to get her addicted.
She died July 13, 2012, a month after her 24th birthday.
"Our child was under the influence of a drug [whose] production has lent itself to be so addictive she could not fight it," said her mother, Diane Scarabino. "She hid it from us so not to disappoint us further. She felt so much shame from a chemical that overwrought her body and mind."
Melanie Soto, an admitted heroin addict who is undergoing treatment in Riverhead, said she lost her mother to a drug overdose in the early 1980s and does not want to share her fate.
"There was a heroin epidemic then and there's one now," Soto said. "We can't keep repeating that history."