Mexico's Sinaloa cartel is bringing in record amounts of heroin that eventually get sold on Long Island and in New York City, supplies of which are contributing to high rates of overdose and addiction, officials said.
Considered the world's largest, most profitable drug-dealing organization, Sinaloa, named for the northern Mexican state where the cartel got its start, does tens of millions of dollars of business each year in the New York-Long Island region, officials said, part of an estimated $3 billion or more it makes off narcotics sales in the United States annually.
"Dealers buy low in the city where the supplies are plentiful and they sell high in areas where it's less plentiful," including Long Island, New York City Special Narcotics Prosecutor Bridget Brennan told Newsday in an exclusive interview last month about Sinaloa's efforts to flood the region with heroin. "They're certainly having a more profound influence here in terms of getting the heroin into the hands of dealers. There's no question they're the ones who are orchestrating the transport of drugs ."
Dominant local supplier
Over the past decade, Sinaloa has battled a host of other powerful Mexican drug cartels -- including the Juarez, Gulf, Los Zetas and Knights Templar organizations -- for increased market share in the United States.
Sinaloa's emergence as the dominant heroin supplier here -- a position achieved through bloody cartel wars fought in Mexico and parts of the southwestern United States -- means it can exercise control over pricing, product strength and distribution chains in ways no drug cartel has been able to since Pablo Escobar's Colombian organization dominated the U.S. cocaine market in the 1980s.
"Heroin is just pouring into the city in a volume that we have never seen before," Brennan said of Sinaloa's efforts.
The Drug Enforcement Administration and Brennan's office dealt a blow to the cartel last month when they seized at least $50 million worth of heroin believed tied to Sinaloa -- the largest bust the DEA said it had ever made in New York State and the fourth largest in the United States.
Authorities said some of the heroin, which they seized in the Bronx, was likely earmarked for lower-level dealers in Nassau and Suffolk.
Still, any supply shortages in the region are likely to be short-lived, due to the large heroin shipments Sinaloa makes to the United States on a daily basis, officials said.
Those exports are needed to serve the needs of thousands of new opioid addicts on Long Island, officials said, many of whom first got hooked on prescription pain pills.
Over the past 15 years, doctors have prescribed record-high numbers of opioids such as OxyContin and Percocet, federal data show.
As a result, opioid addiction rates soared, as did black market sales, officials said. In response, police, prosecutors and state regulators cracked down on illegal pill dealing, as well as overprescribing by doctors.
A cheaper alternative
Their efforts led to decreased availability of pain medication on New York's streets, driving prices up to as much as $80 per pill. That was too pricey for most opioid addicts, who found a cheaper alternative in heroin -- a drug that provides the same high as pain pills, and can be had for as little as $5 to $10 per bag on Long Island, officials said.
Heroin and pain pills exact a high toll in Nassau and Suffolk counties.
At least 341 people died of opioid overdoses in 2014, records show. Hundreds more survived only because they received Narcan, authorities said.
The total number of opioid overdoses on Long Island -- both fatal and nonfatal -- are now exceeding 1,000 a year for the first time, treatment officials said, with thousands of additional users seeking treatment at addiction facilities.
Brookhaven and Hempstead towns have emerged as the epicenter of the ongoing opioid epidemic, with more people dying from heroin and pain pills there than in any other part of Long Island, records show.
At least 39 people in Brookhaven -- Suffolk's most populated town -- died after using opioids alone or mixed with other drugs in 2014, according to Suffolk County records. In Hempstead, at least 61 died from an opioid overdose in 2014, Nassau records show.
More than 8,200 people die of heroin overdoses in the United States each year, with nearly twice that many dying annually from prescription opioid pain pills, federal data show.
"More and more folks are realizing there is a sizable market for heroin on Long Island and there's a ton of money to be made in this game," said Dr. Jeffrey Reynolds, an addiction specialist and president of the Family and Children's Association in Mineola.
To battle the scourge, Nassau and Suffolk police have focused their efforts on arresting heroin distributors and street dealers, officials said.
At the same time, authorities such as the DEA and Brennan's narcotics prosecutors have pursued dealers higher up in the supply chain, including those linked to Sinaloa.
"They're at the heart of the problem," Special Agent in Charge James Hunt, head of the DEA's New York office, said of Mexican cartel associates. "They have a captive market here who needs their product, and they know that."
The heroin making its way to Long Island is mostly grown in the poppy fields of South America, where Colombian cartels purchase it from growers and sell it to Mexican organizations such as Sinaloa, authorities said.
The cartel then smuggles their product -- along with additional heroin produced in Mexico -- into the United States. Much of it is delivered to New York City and its outskirts, a region that serves as a primary hub for heroin distribution nationwide, officials said.
Once Sinaloa-supplied heroin reaches New York, it is often delivered to local drug organizations -- middlemen who break it up into smaller packages and sell it to lower-level drug-dealing crews and gangs.
Toll on communities
Those groups, in turn, move heroin at the street level, often making a significant profit on sales made in Nassau and Suffolk. Long Island buyers traditionally pay more for larger amounts of heroin -- a weeklong supply, for example -- than users do in the city, officials said.
"The attraction is to go where the supplies are not so plentiful and people have money and access to transportation is pretty good," said Brennan.
For families devastated by heroin addiction, the word Sinaloa has become synonymous with "death, addiction and poison," said Melanie Soto, a recovering heroin addict who recently completed a treatment program in Riverhead.
"I knew they [Sinaloa] had the best stuff," said Soto, of Riverhead. "When I heard 'Sinaloa' while I was still getting high, it was . . . kind of a seal of approval. Now when I hear it, I think, anything they sell you will just kill you faster."