EL DURAZNO, Mexico — Mexico's heroin industry has had a bullish few years, and for traffickers the outlook is as uplifting as the scarlet, orange and yellow poppy flowers from which the narcotic is processed.
From what was once a problem largely confined to hubs in California and Texas, Mexican traffickers have expanded into the Midwest and the Atlantic Seaboard, narcotics experts say.
Using savvy marketing tactics, they have also repositioned heroin commercially, revamping its image from the inner-city drug of yore, with its junkies and needles, into a narcotic that can be snorted or smoked, appealing to suburban and even rural high school youth.
A coincidental factor has given the drug gangs a tailwind: The epidemic abuse of painkillers has ebbed in the United States, and youth now hunger for a cheaper high.
"We've heard around the country of changes away from prescription drugs, because they are either more expensive or more difficult to obtain, and a movement toward heroin, which is less costly," said Gil Kerlikowske, a former Seattle police chief who is the White House drug czar.
The State Department said in March that Mexico has surpassed Myanmar as the world's second-largest poppy cultivator and produces 7 percent of the world's heroin, mostly for the U.S. market. The State Department and the United Nations say that Mexican poppy production has nearly tripled since 2007, though Mexico strongly disputes that estimate.
What is indisputable is that drug syndicates that produce black tar and brown heroin in Mexico's Sierra Madre are pushing aggressively into areas where they haven't been active before.
Teenagers in Albuquerque, N.M.; Milwaukie, Ore.; Fenton, Mich.; Troy, Ill.; La Porte, Ind.; and Mentor, Ohio, have died from apparent heroin overdoses in the past nine months. Law enforcement officials warn that heroin has gained a foothold in suburban Atlanta and is the fastest-growing drug in northern Ohio. Prosecutors indicted 20 people in Toledo on May 10 on charges of conspiring to bring Mexican heroin to the city.
A police detective told Charlotte, N.C., council members last week that the city ranks No. 5 among U.S. cities in black tar heroin use.
"You've had a couple of selected cartels move forward very aggressively into the eastern United States," said Dave Gaddis, a former chief of operations for the Drug Enforcement Administration who left the DEA in April and now heads a security consulting firm, G-Global Protection Solutions.
Even in the western United States, where Mexican heroin has been present for decades, law enforcement officials say they are seeing more of it than ever before.
At about $15 a hit, heroin is a lot cheaper than prescription painkillers such as oxycodone (known by its brand name, OxyContin), which can cost $50 to $80 a tablet on the black market. Both opiates, they have similar highs.
The U.S. government once was enthusiastic about bringing poppy to Mexico. During World War II, it encouraged Mexico to plant the opiate-producing flowering plant to ease a shortage of morphine for wounded U.S. soldiers. Afterward, the poppy stayed in the Sierra Madres of western Mexico. It now stretches from the mountainous junction of Sinaloa, Chihuahua and Durango states in the north down into Nayarit, Michoacan, Guerrero and Oaxaca states.