WASHINGTON (AP) - Federal agents made dozens of arrests Thursday as they broke up a multimillion-dollar Mexican heroin ring alleged to have smuggled unusually pure and cheap black tar heroin into new markets from one U.S. coast to the other.
The gang, based in the Nayarit state of Mexico, was distributing 80 pounds of heroin each month, worth more than $7 million, in 22 U.S. cities, said Joe Keefe, chief of special operations for the Drug Enforcement Administration.
The ring was marketing the heroin at such a high level of purity and such a low price that the Mexicans pushed into eastern U.S. markets formerly served by Colombian drug traffickers, Keefe said in an interview.
Since Operation Tar Pit began in October in San Diego, DEA and FBI agents had arrested 70 people through Wednesday. On Thursday, they were arresting between 170 and 200 more people and searching 60 locations.
The ring used juvenile girls and men in their 60s traveling alone from its U.S. command center in Los Angeles to carry drugs to distribution cells from Hawaii to Georgia, Keefe's deputy, Rod Benson, said in an interview. They each would carry 1 pound or 2 pounds of heroin, either wrapped around them in a concealed waistband or hidden in the back of a boom box radio.
``This is the first time either DEA or the FBI has ever done a major operation against black tar heroin in the United States. We learned a lot,'' Keefe said.
``It will take a lot of law enforcement cooperation to deal with this, because a juvenile carrying 1 pound of heroin in a boom box is a lot harder to detect than the Colombians who move cocaine in tractor trailer loads,'' he said.
Benson said DEA was alarmed to find that the ring was selling $10 street doses of heroin, weighing half a gram, that were 60 percent to 85 percent pure heroin.
At a news conference, Attorney General Janet Reno said, ``This organization operated in a dangerously efficient manner. Not only did this group exhibit disregard for the law, but their peddling of this powerful and addictive drug showed an even greater disregard for human life.''
Donnie Marshall, the DEA administrator, said he believes ``this operation has some significant implications, not just for law enforcement but for the country as a whole.''
``This operation, I think, shows that heroin has re-emerged in our society with a vengeance, and it is more potent and more deadly in our country than ever before,'' said Marshall, speaking with Reno at the DEA's suburban Arlington, Va., headquarters.
Over the past few years, the purity of Mexican black tar heroin had been in the 30 percent to 40 percent range. Colombia heroin, which is white because it is processed more, is sold in the United States in purities ranging from 70 percent to 90 percent.
On average, this ring was selling an ounce of heroin for $1,500, compared with the average of $2,400 that Colombian traffickers are charging.
``The Mexicans were underselling the Colombians by $800 to $1,000 an ounce,'' Keefe said.
``The purity rise by the Mexicans over the last few years is their way of competing with the high purity heroin the Colombians bring in,'' Keefe said. ``But the Mexicans also have brought the price down to compete with Colombians in areas east of the Mississippi River that they were not in before,'' including Cleveland, Columbus and Steubenville, Ohio.
Benson said the ring grew its own opium in Nayarit state and processed it there into black tar heroin, which it smuggled in vehicles across the Arizona and California borders to Los Angeles.
The heroin was kept in stash houses in Los Angeles until the couriers could carry it to distribution cells around the nation. Some packages of heroin were shipped by FedEx and United Parcel Service as well, Benson said. He said the shipping companies were unwitting tools of the traffickers and had cooperated in the investigation, which is continuing.
To develop customers quickly, the distribution cells specifically targeted methadone clinics, where heroin addicts receive the drug methadone which blocks their need for heroin, Benson said.
Intelligence reports indicated the gang corrupted clinic employees to send heroin addicts to apartments or hotels where they had established shooting galleries to let the addicts sample and buy their wares, Benson said.
No clinic employees were among Thursday's arrest targets, Benson said.
He said the gang sold heroin in San Diego, Los Angeles and Bakersfield, Calif.; Portland, Ore.; Honolulu; Anchorage, Alaska; Las Vegas and Reno, Nev.; Phoenix and Yuma, Ariz.; Albuquerque, N.M.; Salt Lake City; Denver; Cleveland, Columbus and Steubenville, Ohio; Nashville, Tenn; Atlanta; Chicago; Detroit; Pittsburgh; and Corpus Christi, Texas.
The gang also had distribution cells, not linked to one city, in Kentucky, Minnesota, Alabama, West Virginia and New Jersey, Benson said.