This article is not meant to embarrass, put down, or offend persons suffering from addiction. It is a clear description of persons who use and abuse opiates and synthetic opioids. It is happening now in our communities and it could affect your family members, neighbors, co-workers and members from all professions. It can affect anyone regardless of race, ethnicity, gender or socio-economic status, as illegal drug dealers and drug users are not biased. To drug dealers and users it is about making money and getting high.
Who could have ever guessed that a flowering plant named Papaver Somniferum would cause in our time one of the worst illegal drug epidemics in history? The Papaver Somniferum plant produces a pod that contains raw opium. Morphine is derived from the raw opium and several opiate drugs, including heroin, are produced from the morphine.
Is the zombie apocalypse real? Members of law enforcement and firefighters will tell you it is. However, it is not the flesh eating creatures you watch on television or see in the movies, but rather a drug that takes over the body and mind. Visit your local hospital’s emergency room and see what we see almost every day and you will agree that this zombie apocalypse exists.
Production and Transportation
Afghanistan was the largest producer of raw opium until several years ago when Mexico began growing poppy fields. With illegal drug routes already established to export cocaine, methamphetamine and marijuana out of Mexico, now vast shipments of heroin travel these same routes for distribution throughout the world. Cartels use submarines, vehicles, mail services, underground tunnels and planes to smuggle heroin from Mexico into the U.S. Just recently, a tunnel was discovered that led from Mexico to San Diego, California. The tunnel measured over 800 yards complete with lighting and ventilation. Also discovered was over $20 million in cocaine and marijuana.
Financial institutions (FIs) can help identify smugglers through both employees and employers of illegal businesses such as these. Usually the groundworkers are paid in cash and at times can be paid very well. Red flags can be found in straight cash businesses. Anytime a customer makes numerous cash deposits a suspicious activity report (SAR) could be warranted. It is always important to know your customer and what is their true business. An excavator, who buys large pieces of equipment for their business but can never say where they are performing their work, is a clue in my opinion.
Another common way to smuggle illegal drugs is through a body packer. If you are curious what a body packer is, it is simple: 1) Fill somewhere between 50 to 150 balloons with heroin; 2) Tie off the balloon at the end and coat the balloon to make it slick; 3) Enlist a person through promises of a large payment if successful in smuggling the balloons through customs or through threats toward family members for refusal to smuggle the drugs.
The enlisted body packer will swallow the balloons and begin a dangerous trip to their destination and a race against time. As the balloons go through the digestive system, the stomach acids begin to eat away at the balloons. The body packer must make it to their destination before the stomach acids dissolve the balloons completely and the heroin is released into the body causing death from overdose. If the body packer is successful, a laxative is taken and the balloons exit the body.
Wholesale and Retail
Once the heroin has arrived to its destination, it is broken down to be sold at the street level. The wholesaler usually has not stepped on his product at this point. This means there is no cut added to increase the size or value of the drug. The heroin may go through several wholesalers and depending on how much heroin is needed, cut may be added (stepped on) later depending on the number of times it is resold and the reputation of the wholesaler. A wholesaler who adds too much cut to his product will not last long in the illegal drug market. Cut is any additive that has the same appearance as the drug (e.g., inositol, baby powder, creatine, or any substance legally purchased in a retail store). If you have one ounce of heroin and one ounce of a legal powder and you combine the two, the illegal distributor now has two ounces of heroin and their profit is doubled.
When heroin is manufactured there is no such thing as 100 percent pure heroin—it will always contain impurities. Once cut is added, the heroin becomes even less pure. The normal purity level in Northern Virginia can be anywhere from 6 to 12 percent pure. This is one of the reasons that lead to overdoses. If an addict continues to go to the same 10 percent purity dealer who sells heroin, and then goes to another dealer who is selling it at 20 percent pure and has a different cut added, the human body will react differently and it may possibly lead to death. Purity levels can be higher in other parts of the world. Purity levels can range from 30 to 50 and even 60 percent.
Once heroin gets to the retail phase for sales this is where it truly becomes dangerous for the customer (addict). Jurisdictions throughout the country are seeing heroin cut with other legal and illegal drugs. Fentanyl is becoming more common as a cutting agent or is being sold as heroin. Fentanyl is a synthetic opiate and a powerful painkiller and can be 50 to 100 times more potent than heroin. The user will never know what they are injecting or snorting.
Chasing the Dragon
Once heroin enters the human body for the first time it causes an extreme euphoric effect. It has been described as the best feeling possible. The human body quickly begins to build up a tolerance to heroin and it takes more and more to achieve the high. Users never achieve the same high as the first time and they call this “Chasing the Dragon.”
The more the addict uses heroin the more it begins to destroy the human body. The different types of cuts that are used can also affect the human body and at times can be poisonous. The problem with distributors is that there is never a lack of them. Once one is arrested, two more take their place. No dealer sells the same product from the wholesaler. The business of illegal drug dealing is to make money. The more you cut your product the more money you will make. The biggest problem facing us all is the demand. There is such a demand for heroin that there will always be a supplier.
One of the big reasons for the sharp rise in heroin use is the over prescribing of opiate painkillers. For example, a high school student gets seriously hurt during a sporting event. A doctor prescribes an opiate for pain. The student becomes dependent on the drug and the doctor refuses to refill the prescription. The student turns to heroin to feed the habit. Heroin use has no age limit, we have seen persons as young as 16 and as old as 60 use and abuse heroin.
Truth be Told: What can I do?
One of the more startling statistics in Virginia was a wakeup call for many. There were 728 overdose deaths in the Commonwealth of Virginia in 2014 and 700 deaths related to traffic accidents. In Fairfax County alone, there were six confirmed overdose deaths reported with 28 more awaiting results from the medical examiner in 2015. Fairfax County Police initiated a heroin task force to attack this increasing risk to communities and its residents. A detective is currently responding to every overdose and providing written material on how to get help through community services. As an example, the card below is included in a packet that each overdose victim receives.
The first line of defense in saving a life is working together
This is now where FIs come in. Law enforcement will never be able to arrest its way out of this problem. In my 33 years of law enforcement experience there is no other drug that has held a grip on society like heroin. Only together can we make a difference. The money laundering playing field is more sophisticated than ever. Bitcoin, mobile banking, reloadable cash cards and bulk cash smuggling, are just a few methods utilized today. I cannot stress enough the importance of law enforcement and FIs working and sharing information together. Truly if you “See something, say something” is the biggest defense to attack criminal activity. SARs are another great tool, but so is picking up the telephone and calling your local/federal law enforcement agency and vice versa from our end and meeting each other. The sharing and exchange of information from both professions is the key to attacking this growing epidemic. The first line of defense in saving a life is working together.
Time and time again, FIs are told to complete a SAR on suspicious activity. As the writer, you want to know what we in law enforcement want to read when reviewing a SAR. The best answer is plain and simple: Why is this suspicious to you? When completing a SAR tell the reader, in the simplest form, why this was raised to a level for you to complete a SAR.
Help Us Make a Difference—Help Us Save a Life
We in law enforcement enjoy meeting new people and making new contacts. Anything that can aid us in catching the criminals is what we live for. If you want training, just ask your local law enforcement or contact the federal law enforcement agency in your area. Knowledge is power. Understanding criminals and their desire to make money through criminal acts and their continued attack on FIs to hide ill-gotten gains is necessary. We can both learn from each other and through this, we can make communities safer for all.
In addition, know the source countries where heroin is coming from: Mexico, Afghanistan, Laos, Vietnam, Burma, Thailand and Colombia. Do they have business with your institution? Does this mean that everyone who conducts business with you from one of these countries exports heroin? Of course not. This is where customer due diligence and know your customer come into play. If it sounds suspicious to you, I can guarantee it will probably be suspicious to us in law enforcement. You will probably never write a SAR on a user who withdraws $20 to $60 at a time several times a day to purchase heroin. You will probably never write a SAR on a street dealer who typically never uses an FI. You will probably write a SAR on a wholesaler who is trying to launder money through an FI. You will probably write a SAR on a person who utilizes cash cards, travel to source countries, stays for short periods, and makes more money than the business they can account for.
I do not need to tell you how to do your job nor would I ever. Nor would I want you to come to my office and tell me mine. I am just asking you to help me save a life. I have personally seen what heroin can do to a person, their family and friends. I am truly tired of seeing young people die from an illegal drug when it could have been prevented. I talk to other jurisdictions, federal law enforcement agencies and community services. We are all tired of watching people suffer and die. Wholesalers and dealers do not care and they just want to make money. We should not think that way and as a world, this way of thinking cannot be acceptable.
What else can we do? Go into your medicine cabinet and see if you have any prescription drugs that are expired or that you no longer need. This is something we want you to realize especially if you have children or have placed your home for sale and people are conducting walkthroughs to look at your home. Possibly your children, or their friends, a relative, or a potential buyer for your home will go into your bathroom, into your medicine cabinet and steal your prescription drugs. I guarantee that someone who reads this has already had this happen to him/her. The abuse of prescription drugs leads a user down a road with dire consequences. Prescription pill abuse can lead to the use and abuse of heroin. By removing just one temptation it can lead to lasting results.
Moreover, I highly recommend you view a program recently produced by the FBI and the DEA titled “Chasing the Dragon: The Life of an Opiate Addict,” (viewer discretion is advised due to strong language and graphic images). It can be seen by going to www.FBI.gov/ChasingTheDragon. This documentary is enlightening as well as eye opening.
Heroin is a man-made creation that may first lead to a euphoric effect, but in the end can lead to death. It is a monster without a face, feelings, or thought. Addiction is a disease with almost an uncertain cure. One way to end this vicious cycle is stopping it before it starts. Together we can try to make a difference by learning from each other in this ever-growing battle. Only together can we possibly hope to win this war through combined and targeted attacks on criminals and the monies derived from criminal acts. If you see something, say something. Law enforcement and FIs are different professions, but our common goal is the same: not allowing criminals to corrupt society, insuring legitimate businesses thrive and making sure at the end of our perspective shifts that we make it home alive.