From the doorway of Room 8 at the Dayton Motor Hotel on North Keowee Street, the DEA officer spotted the trashcan, which appeared to be covered in human feces.
He knew immediately what that meant: heroin.
Gerardo Alfonso Vargas had traveled more than 2,000 miles to Dayton from Tijuana, Mexico, after ingesting 71 latex-covered heroin pellets worth as much as $100,000 or more. Had he been searched at the border, or any other point along the way, the heroin would have gone undetected.
But before U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration task force officers arrived, Vargas rid his body of all but a single pellet, bagged the drugs and hid the bag in the motel room’s toilet tank. If not for the knock on the door, the next stop for this shipment would have been the streets of Dayton or Springfield or Middletown.
Welcome to the heroin pipeline.
Heroin may first enter the country through underground tunnels or make a border crossing in secret compartments hollowed out of car panels or welded into semi-trailer truck frames. At times, a dealer simply schedules a pickup with FedEx and plays the odds that a shipment will make it through.
Sometimes it comes, as it did with Vargas, through a drug courier’s bowels.
Regardless how it‘s delivered, authorities say most of the heroin purchased in the Dayton region — and in America today — is trafficked by violent criminal organizations based in one country: Mexico.
“If I’m an addict I have a very small view of what heroin is or where it comes from. I know it comes from my dealer, or if I’m in a suburb I know it’s not in my neighborhood, it’s on some other street corner,” said Montgomery County Sheriff’s Capt. Mike Brem, commander of the Regional Agencies Narcotics and Gun Enforcement Task Force. “But the fact of the matter is we deal with cartel-level distribution in the Miami Valley on a daily basis.”
Vargas’ story, told in court documents, sheds light on the clandestine path heroin takes before it enters the arm of an addict in the Miami Valley.
On Aug. 3, 2014, the DEA task force — which included members from local police departments — acted on a tip and knocked on the door of the motel room where the then 22-year-old Vargas was staying. His answers were evasive and there was the matter of the trash can.
Officers searched the room and found almost all the heroin pellets Vargas had previously swallowed bagged and stashed. Vargas, who’s now serving a two-year federal prison term, passed the 71st pellet in police custody at Grandview Medical Center.
Vargas, federal court documents show, crossed the border on foot two days earlier at San Ysidro, Calif., caught a flight from California to Indianapolis and then took a taxi to Dayton.
He told investigators he was paid $6 a gram to transport the drugs that totaled 1,111.1 grams — more than a kilogram — when put on a scale at the DEA’s Dayton Resident Office in Miamisburg.
“To get a kilo of heroin in the Dayton area five years ago, that was a lot of heroin. Nowadays it’s not, said Tim Plancon, assistant special agent in charge of DEA’s Ohio Columbus District Office.”
Though Vargas told authorities he was a U.S. citizen, he’d lived in Mexico for 10 years and had resided in the Mexican state of Michoacan, a common source of the “mules” who transport the heroin to the Miami Valley as well as the mid-level dealers who distribute it here.
The August 2014 trip wasn’t Vargas’ first to Dayton. He’d been here six or seven times before, he told investigators, but had never carried that many pellets in his body.
He also told investigators the entire trip was coordinated by phone with people in Mexico.
It’s increasingly common for informants and captured drug couriers to single out higher-ups associated with Mexican cartels for calling the shots when it comes to the distribution of heroin flooding the Miami Valley, area law enforcement officials say.
Heroin is processed from the milky sap scraped from the seedpod of an opium poppy. The red or purple flower that blossoms into so much misery for so many is grown primarily in four geographic regions of the world: Southeast Asia, Southwest Asia, South America and Mexico.
While Afghanistan is attributed with producing as much as 80 percent of the world’s heroin supply, the source of the heroin feeding the U.S. market has shifted away from that part of the world, authorities say.
“Twenty years ago it all came from Turkey, Afghanistan, Southwest Asia and Southeast Asia, so there has been a significant change,” said Chris Melink, resident agent in charge of the DEA’s Dayton office. Once on a Dayton street, a kilo of heroin in Dayton can net $70,000 or more, he said.
In 1995, most of the wholesale heroin seized in the U.S. originated in Asia, according to the DEA’s Heroin Signature Program. By 2012, most all the bulk heroin seized — 96 percent — originated in Mexico or South America.
It’s all going to feed a growing U.S. demand.
Heroin use in the U.S. nearly doubled between 2007 and 2013, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The administration estimated about 300,000 Americans were using heroin at any given time in 2013.
Ironically, some of the demand resulted from federal and state crackdowns on the abuse and diversion of prescription pain medications. The 2014 National Drug Threat Assessment Summary outlines how addiction to pain pills like OxyContin and Vicodin led addicts straight to heroin, with some seeking out the much stronger and deadlier synthesized analog, fentanyl.
A recent National Survey on Drug Use and Health study showed that four out of five heroin users had previously abused pain medication.
“Some of the heroin problem around here is because we pushed people off prescription pain pills. We closed down pill mills and made it harder for people to doctor shop,” said Michael Norris, associate professor of sociology, director, Crime and Justice Studies at Wright State University.
“We made it harder for people with legitimate pain to get the medication they need. So if the street price of OxyContin goes up to $30 a pill, then a $5 bag of heroin starts looking pretty good.” Norris said. “But then you wind up with people overdosing and even dying.”
‘I was so dependent’
Drug overdose deaths involving heroin in the U.S. nearly quadrupled from 2000 to 2013 to 2.7 deaths per 100,000. Most of the increase came after 2010, according to National Vital Statistics System data.
What’s more frightening, is that the heroin — and now fentanyl — that enters the country through Mexico is cheaper and more potent. Current and recovering addicts report dealers often hand out free samples to get people hooked on heroin, knowing they’ll later sell the shirt off their back for a bag.
Johnny Baxter of Dayton remembers well the sickness that took hold when his system was deprived of the drug.
“Somebody could have sold me shavings of soap, I was so dependent on that allowing me to feel better,” he said.
He’s now helping others beat heroin addictions, but he said it’s even tougher now than when he got clean. Three years ago he got out of prison and enrolled at Sinclair Community College. It seemed everyone he passed on his way to school offered him the drug he’d sworn off, Baxter said.
“It was so rampant by then they would literally give you $10 caps. Everybody out there was a freaking drug dealer.”
Americans drop about $65 billion a year on illegal drugs, according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy. The U.S. Department of State estimated in 2013 that up to $29 billion goes right back to Mexico. All the federal agencies combined seize approximately just $1 billion a year, leaving the remaining billions for the drug traffickers.
“The amount of money generated here is unbelievable,” Melink said. “That bulk currency has to be returned to the sources. And that generates interest and directions from that side as well.”
Melink said over the past four or five years, the cartels have locked down the supply chain of heroin and illicit fentanyl to Dayton. Heroin may pass through San Diego, Los Angeles, Atlanta or Indianapolis, he said, but it’s mainly controlled from Mexico.
“What we’re seeing is these large cartels are evolved into a group of like-minded entrepreneurs who use each other’s talents, skills and services to facilitate the trafficking,” Melink said. “Folks from the Mexican side control the mid-level distribution and where certain things go and how it’s to be delivered. For Dayton that is a significant change.”
It’s hard to determine which cartel at any given time might be the source of drugs here, Melink said.
“The Sinaloa and La Familia are two cartels that have directly affected Dayton and the Columbus area,” he said, but it’s difficult to determine at any time the ultimate source of heroin as rampant corruption and violence in Mexico continually reshapes the distribution networks.
In the city of Uruapan — the Michaocan town linked to some Dayton traffickers — seven men were found executed in March 2013, their bodies arranged in a line of chairs. They had each been shot in the head and threat messages were driven into their chests with ice picks.
“There’s no way you can trump the cartels for brutality,” Wright State’s Norris said.
It’s unclear how Gerardo Alfonso Vargas was recruited to deliver heroin to Dayton, but some cartel leaders don’t give mules much choice in the matter, Brem said.
“The people we talk to may not be here legally but many times they are not here willingly, either,” Brem said. “Their families are held captive. Sometimes they are working off a charge in Mexico. So there’s a lot of distribution efforts that are done by illegal aliens but also not always willingly by them. So it’s a sad situation.”
The arrest of Vargas and 17 others last year was the culmination of a multi-agency DEA Miami Valley Ohio High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Task Force investigation.
The investigation, which used intercepted phone conversations, led to the seizures of 12 kilograms of heroin, four kilograms of methamphetamine, over one kilogram of cocaine, about 10 pounds of marijuana, and approximately $993,000 in drug proceeds and property. The trafficking organization targeted by the task force used internal body couriers like Vargas and hidden compartments in vehicles to move the large quantities of drugs into Ohio — specifically to the Dayton metropolitan area — and money remitters, sometimes called “smurfs” to move illicit proceeds back to Mexico.
It had direct ties to the city of Uruapan, the DEA’s Plancon said.
Melink said investigators were able to hone in on the command and control operation of the network.
“Based on flight patterns, based on observations on their method of operation, we were able to understand that this organization was moving a number of couriers through California and then into Dayton,” Melink said. “One courier in itself isn’t significant, but when you start bringing in a number of couriers a month you can push out a lot of heroin from them.”
Melink said the cartels know every mule won’t make it through so they will sometimes send multiple couriers — even aboard the same flight. Most of the heroin coming to the Miami Valley, though, arrives concealed in vehicles, Melink said.
The U.S Attorney’s Southern District of Ohio office in Dayton prosecuted 78 federal drug trafficking cases last year and has already approved charges on 56 cases this year. Andrew Hunt, an assistant prosecuting attorney for the office, estimated that 70-80 percent of the cases handled over the last four years involve heroin.
The U.S. Attorney’s office in Dayton takes cases from Champaign, Clark, Darke, Greene, Miami, Montgomery, Preble, and Shelby counties.
“We see heroin being transported to the United States in general terms through the use of certain traps in vehicles,” Hunt said. “We’ve seen it transported in large commercial semis, hidden in loads with other legitimate produce or something along those lines. Different groups operate with tentacles in the Dayton area, but one of the popular ones is Michoacan.”
‘It’s very heart wrenching’
The DEA’s Melink estimates that 75-100 end-use retail dealers in the region sell 200 caps a day to a base of five to 10 customers. Another 25-30 mid-level suppliers service those dealers.
The highest-end dealers locally — perhaps no more than 10 — supply those lower in the chain and are directly connected to the cartels, he said. It’s made Dayton a hub for the region.
“We know the heroin/fentanyl mix is being distributed to Miami County, Bellefontaine, and to other outlying counties for sure,” he said.
The cartels go to great lengths to ensure secrecy and some who keep the organizations greased never encounter the drugs.
“There’s a whole network of people who don’t directly touch the product but help facilitate the drug trade,” Melink said. “Every organization is different. They develop a relationship with certain entities who … try to protect the identity of the folks who are directly handling the product.”
The poppies are grown by poor farmers trying to eke out a living on hillsides in Colombia or Mexico. They sell to those who process the opium further, usually in tin shacks. The couriers who ferry the drugs are often poor as well — sometimes minors.
“It’s very heart wrenching, too, when you see or hear about kids being involved. Our intelligence tells us that whether it’s body smuggling or any other kind of smuggling (drug cartels) use kids a lot,” Brem said. “Remember it’s all about one thing: money, it’s not about anything else but that.”
Behind the curtain
The United States Congress has appropriated $2.3 billion since 2008 in a partnership with Mexico to help stem the tide of drugs to the U.S and provide training to Mexican police and judicial authorities. The Meridia Initiative is cited by the U.S. Department of State as contributing to the capture last year of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, leader of the Sinaloa cartel and two other powerful Mexican cartel leaders.
But the heroin is still flowing to the Miami Valley even as other would-be kingpins battle in Mexico to consolidate power within the fractured cartels.
Stopping that flow may not be possible, but law enforcement officials point to efforts that they hope can put a crimp in a pipeline that sends drug couriers from Michoacan, Mexico, to places like West Carrollton, Ohio.
That’s where Jose Guadalupe Molina Valenzuela picked up a package in December 2013 from a pickup driver who was being tracked by DEA task force members through a court-approved GPS device. After Valenzuela made a number of traffic violations in his Cadillac Escalade, he was pulled over by Ohio State Highway Patrol troopers who were coordinating with the task force.
A search turned up two yellow cylinders of heroin bound in green plastic wrap — a total of 1,021 grams with a street value of anywhere between $70,000 and $120,000. He was sentenced last June to 42 months in federal prison.
Brem said tracking heroin to the source is difficult when so many different people — often juveniles — are delivering the product to doorsteps in the Miami Valley. Even those moving large quantities often have little idea who’s behind the curtain.
“Your typical dealer is somebody who is just trying to make an extra dollar to get whatever toy, but the big guys, I couldn’t even begin to tell you,” said Baxter, the recovering addict who described the people he dealt with as “bottom of the barrel guys. They’re just looking to make a fast buck with no concern of the lives at risk.
“Anybody who’s really into it is not going to want their hands dirty with that.”
Glossary of terms
Black Tar: Historically produced in Mexico. Considered lower grade than China White.
Body packer, swallower: A courier or mule who swallows drugs for transport that is later expelled.
Body stuffer: A mule who places drugs in folds of fat, within the buttocks, or body cavities.
Cap: A gel capsule of heroin. Weight varies by region but in Miami Valley usually a tenth of a gram.
Cartel: A criminal enterprise developed to control drug trafficking. Can be loosely managed arrangements among various drug traffickers to highly formalized agreements.
China White: Generically refers to heroin that is pure. Now used sometimes to describe fentanyl, which is up to 50 times more potent.
Kilo: A thousand grams or 2.204 pounds.
Mule: A courier who smuggles drugs across international borders for a cartel.
Smurf: Decoy depositors who take a cut to help cartels launder money. Usually makes bank deposits under $10,000 a day to avoid government suspicion.
Trap: A secret compartment in a vehicle to conceal drugs from authorities.