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Mexico's Sinaloa cartel carves niche as leading heroin distributor on Long Island

U.S. Attorney Zachary T. Fardon makes reference to

U.S. Attorney Zachary T. Fardon makes reference to a chart of known Mexico-based Sinaloa Cartel members during a news conference on Tuesday, Jan. 27, 2015, in Chicago. Credit: AP / Charles Rex Arbogast

          An Editor’s Note published July 12, 2017, about Kevin Deutsch’s reporting appears at the end of this story. 

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."

Editor’s note: Newsday undertook an extensive, four-month review of reporting by Kevin Deutsch, who covered law enforcement from April 2012 to September 2016. 

The review of the former Newsday reporter’s work began after The Baltimore Sun this year reported that law enforcement and other officials questioned the veracity of Deutsch’s nonfiction book “Pill City” about Baltimore’s drug trade. In addition, questions arose about individuals named in Newsday stories by Deutsch. Book publisher St. Martin’s Press and Deutsch have said they stand behind the book. 

We are dedicated to accurate, factual reporting, to the highest journalistic standards and to maintaining our credibility with Newsday readers. We also are committed to being accountable to our readers. Newsday undertook the detailed review in that spirit and because of the concerns that were raised.  

In late February, as our review was under way, The New York Times reported in an editor’s note that The Times “had been unable to locate or confirm the existence of two people who were named and quoted” in a Dec. 29, 2016, freelance article written by Deutsch. Deutsch “maintains that the interviews and the descriptions are accurate,” The Times wrote. 

Newsday reviewed 600 stories with reporting by Deutsch. We contacted officials in the police departments regularly involved in Deutsch’s coverage. They said they had not had problems with his work. We then focused our research and reporting on individuals who, as described in the stories, would not be considered officials, or well-known, public figures. 

The review found 77 stories with 109 individuals from Deutsch’s reporting whom Newsday could not locate. The main points of the stories were not affected. While two stories about the Orlando nightclub shooter Omar Mateen were based on sources Newsday could not locate, other media reported the main points of those stories but with attribution from different sources.  In this story, Newsday could not locate: Melanie Soto. Newsday is attaching an editor’s note to each story online that contains individuals we cannot locate.  

Here’s how Newsday conducted the review:  

Researchers and reporters searched local and national public records, sites providing nationwide people searches, databases of business, real estate and conviction records, social media sites including Facebook, LinkedIn and and nationwide news archives. They searched potential alternate spellings and other name variations. Their reporting followed potential leads they found through research, within stories and in information shared by Deutsch during the review. 

Finding people after publication, in some cases years later, can be difficult because of changes in residence, circumstance and contact information. Some may not have given their real names. 

On the law enforcement beat, reporters may encounter people who lead lives that are not reflected in public records or other sources of information that would help locate them. It is possible that some on our list were difficult to find or reluctant to respond to our review because they are undocumented immigrants, those battling or recovering from addiction or people involved in or around illegal activity.  

Some on our list were described discussing crimes in their neighborhoods, and others as relatives, friends or neighbors of victims or as individuals living near or knowing those accused of crimes. 

Others we have not been able to locate, though, are described as bystanders, neighbors, spectators, relatives of drug victims, witnesses to news events or related in some way to people in the news. Still others are described in stories as people actively engaged in public issues, such as activists, protesters and marchers. Many individuals on the list are described as local. 

Deutsch said in email exchanges with Newsday that “I have no doubt about the veracity of the claims of the sources I quoted.” He also said, “Not a single public official, source, or other interviewee has raised any issues with even one of these stories.” 

“It's impossible for any reporter to know whether the name given to him by interviewees on the street--or those reached briefly by phone or email-- is that person's full and legal name, rather than an alias or variation of their real name (maiden names and certain common nicknames/abbreviations for first names are often published by newspapers, including Newsday.). But every one of the names on Newsday’s list was the name given to me by that interview subject, verbatim.” 

During the four months of our review, Newsday shared questions and updates with Deutsch as we progressed in the search for individuals we could not locate. We requested notes and contact information. Deutsch sent us notes he said represented all individuals we were unable to locate and responded over the course of the review by email, sharing information he said was from his recollection and notes. 

Reporters followed up on all information shared by Deutsch. He did not provide contact information for those on our list. Newsday reporters and editors sought unsuccessfully several times to meet with Deutsch to discuss his reporting and to review his notes together to ensure we were not missing contact information or other details that might help locate individuals. Deutsch maintained that the notes he shared “serve as evidence of interviews” with each source.  

Deutsch said he kept contact information in a Rolodex he left behind at Newsday’s main office and in a company-issued cellphone he returned within a week after resigning on Sept. 6, 2016. Editorial staff did not find a Rolodex or other notes at our office, but found notes left at Newsday’s desk at a courthouse pressroom where he worked. We shared them with Deutsch and he confirmed they were his. As per company policy, the contents of the cellphone had been deleted immediately after Deutsch returned it to Newsday. 

Maintaining the trust of our readers is essential to our mission.  If we are able subsequently to locate any individuals, we will update our stories. 

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