U.S. and Mexico to set up joint team to fight drug cartels

FILE PHOTO: An agent of the office of the Attorney General of Mexico carries a package of seized marijuana at the site of a passageway Mexican authorities on Thursday attributed to the cartel of fugitive kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman in Tijuana, October 24, 2015. REUTERS/Jorge Duenes/File Photo

By Karen Pierog

CHICAGO (Reuters) – The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and Mexico will set up a joint team in Chicago targeting Mexican drug cartels and their leaders and finances, to try to stem a flow of drugs that has led to a spike in U.S. overdose deaths, officials said on Wednesday.

DEA Chief of Operations Anthony Williams said at a joint news conference with Mexican government officials in Chicago that targeting cartel finances was key because “the sole purpose of these entities is one thing and one thing only – money.”

Mexico remains the principal highway for cocaine to the United States and has become the top source of heroin, which is fueling a surge in opioid addiction in the United States. It is also a major supplier of methamphetamines.

“It’s not just a Chicago problem, it’s a national problem. Actually, it’s an international problem,” Brian McKnight, special agent in charge of the DEA’s Chicago Field Division, said at the news conference.

Mexican President-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, a left-leaning nationalist, has vowed to shake up Mexico’s war on drug cartels after he takes power in December. He wants to rewrite the rules, aides have said, suggesting negotiated peace and amnesties rather than a hardline strategy that critics say has only perpetuated violence.

However, a change of direction without the United States could increase friction between the neighbors, who have been often at loggerheads since Donald Trump became U.S. president.

Trump has irked Mexico with demands that it pay for a border wall and his comments that it does nothing to slow illegal immigration. He has also pushed to revamp the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to favor the United States.

But despite difference with the Trump administration on migration and trade issues, officials and security experts in the United States have applauded long-running bilateral efforts to crack down on drug gangs.

For the past 12 years, Mexico has fought the violent cartels by deploying thousands of police, soldiers, and intelligence officers.

(Reporting by Karen Pierog, Writing by Jon Herskovitz; Additional reporting by Dave Graham in Mexico City, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)

U.S., Afghan forces strike opium factories to curb Taliban funds

U.S. Army General John Nicholson, Commander of Resolute Support forces and U.S. forces in Afghanistan, speaks during a news conference in Kabul, Afghanistan November 20, 2017.

By Girish Gupta

KABUL (Reuters) – U.S. and Afghan forces have launched joint attacks on Taliban opium factories to try to curb the insurgent group’s economic lifeline, officials from both countries said on Monday.

U.S. Army General John Nicholson showed videos at a press conference of targeted aerial strikes against what he described as Taliban drug factories.

“Last night we conducted strikes in northern Helmand to hit the Taliban where it hurts, in their narcotics financing,” said Nicholson, flanked by Afghan Army Lieutenant General Mohammad Sharif Yaftali.

The southern province of Helmand suffers heavy fighting and is the single-largest producer of opium.

Opium production in Afghanistan reached record highs this year, up 87 percent on last year, the United Nations said last week.

The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said output of opium made from poppy seeds in Afghanistan, the world’s main source of heroin, stands at around 9,000 metric tons this year.

UNODC has warned in the past that Kabul’s weakening grip on security was contributing to a collapse in eradication efforts.



Nearly half of Afghan opium is processed, or refined into morphine or heroin, before it is trafficked out of the country, according to U.S. and Afghan officials.

“We’re determined to tackle criminal economy and narcotics trafficking with full force,” said Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on Twitter.

Nicholson said the attacks were part of U.S. President Donald Trump’s new policy toward Afghanistan as he boosts troop numbers.

The four-star general showed one video of an F-22 fighter jet dropping 250-pound bombs on two buildings, emphasizing that a nearby third building was left unscathed.

U.S. troops have long been accused of causing unnecessary collateral damage and civilian deaths. The United States says it takes every precaution to avoid civilian casualties.

The United Nations said at least 10 civilians may have been killed by a strike in Kunduz earlier this month, contradicting a U.S. investigation that found no civilian deaths.


(Writing by Girish Gupta; Editing by James Mackenzie)


Massachusetts heroin trade crackdown leads to 30 arrests

A used needle sits on the ground in a park in Lawrence, Massachusetts, U.S., May 30, 2017, where individuals were arrested earlier in the day during raids to break up heroin and fentanyl drug rings in the region, according to law enforcement officials. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

BOSTON (Reuters) – A crackdown on Massachusetts’ heroin trade led to the arrests of 30 people on Tuesday on charges they were running a drug-trafficking ring that law enforcement officials said was one of the largest they had ever seen in the state.

Authorities said 27 people were arrested in early-morning raids around Lawrence and charged with running a ring that dealt heroin, cocaine and the deadly painkiller fentanyl in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine. Three people already had been in custody.

About 200 federal, state and local law enforcement officials were involved in the sweep, which authorities dubbed Operation Bad Company, following an investigation that began in April 2016. The operation included phones taps in a house in Lawrence that served as the ring’s “stash house,” according to court papers unsealed on Tuesday.

Lawrence, a former mill town, is about 30 miles north of Boston near the New Hampshire border.

The alleged leaders of the ring, Juan Anibal Patrone, 26, and Josuel Moises Patrone-Gonzalez, 22, are dual citizens of the Dominican Republic and Italy, according to the U.S. Attorney’s office in Massachusetts. It was not immediately clear whether either of the two had hired an attorney.

A spike in U.S. overdose deaths linked to heroin, fentanyl and other opioid drugs has prompted a national crackdown on the trade by U.S. law enforcement. Heroin-related overdose deaths quadrupled from 2010 to 2015, when they hit 13,000, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

(Reporting by Scott Malone; Editing by Bill Trott)

U.S. hepatitis C cases soar on spike in heroin use

FILE PHOTO - A man injects himself with heroin using a needle obtained from the People's Harm Reduction Alliance, the nation's largest needle-exchange program, in Seattle, Washington April 30, 2015. REUTERS/David Ryder/File Photo

(Reuters) – U.S. health officials said new cases of hepatitis C rose nearly 300 percent from 2010 to 2015, despite the availability of cures for the liver disease, fueled by a spike in the use of heroin and other injection drugs, according to a report released on Thursday.

In 2015, the national reported rate of hepatitis C was 0.8 per 100,000 persons with nearly 34,000 new infections, according to the report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Access to clean syringes and a limit on Medicaid barriers to curative treatments for hepatitis C can reduce rates of death from the disease and transmission of the virus to others, the CDC said.

New treatments for hepatitis C with a cure rate of over 95 percent from Gilead Sciences <GILD.O>, AbbVie <ABBV.N> and other drugmakers have the ability to virtually wipe out the disease, which can lead to cirrhosis, cancer, the need for a liver transplant or death.

But the opioid addiction epidemic appears to be creating tens of thousands of new cases, with unclean needles the leading cause of infections. Some experts say that one reason heroin use has soared is because the illegal drug has become much cheaper than prescription opioid painkillers and due to new limits on dispensing of the addictive legal pain medicines.

The CDC conducted a state-by-state analysis of reported cases of the hepatitis C virus (HCV), as well as a review of laws related to access to clean needles for individuals who inject drugs, and levels of restriction on Medicaid access to treatments.

In 2015, it found HCV rates in 17 states exceeded the national average.

The analysis found only Massachusetts, New Mexico and Washington had both a comprehensive set of laws and a permissive Medicaid treatment policy that could help prevent the spread of HCV and provide treatment services for those who inject drugs.

Twenty-four states had policies that require some period of sobriety to receive HCV treatment through Medicaid, potentially limiting access to cures, compared with 16 states without such restrictions.

Among the best ways of preventing spread of the virus are public health laws that allow access to clean syringes for drug users, such as needle exchange programs, decriminalization of the possession of syringes, and allowing the retail sale of syringes without a prescription.

Eighteen states had no such programs, the report found, while Maine, Nevada and Utah had the most comprehensive laws related to prevention, including syringe exchange without limitations.

(Reporting by Bill Berkrot; Editing by Leslie Adler)

Exclusive: U.S. offers to fund Mexico heroin fight as 2016 output jumps – U.S. official

FILE PHOTO: Policemen keep watch on the perimeter of a scene during a shooting with federal forces in Tepic, in Nayarit state, February 10, 2017. REUTERS/Hugo Cervantes/File Photo

By Gabriel Stargardter

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – The United States has offered to help fund Mexico’s efforts to eradicate opium poppies, the U.S. assistant secretary for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) said on Friday, as Mexican heroin output increased again last year.

“We would be prepared to support (opium eradication efforts) should we reach a basic agreement in terms of how they would do more and better eradication in the future,” William Brownfield of INL, part of the State Department, said in an interview.

“That is on the table, but I don’t want you to conclude that it’s a done deal, because we still have to work through the details,” he said, without specifying how much money the United States could provide.

The United States is in the midst of an opiates epidemic that has killed tens of thousands of people, and with much of its heroin coming from the mountains of Mexico, the issue has become a key topic of discussion between the Mexican government and the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump.

The U.S. offer to help fund Mexico’s war on poppy cultivation stands in stark contrast to Trump’s threats to rip up the North American Free Trade Agreement and force Mexico to pay for a wall along the U.S. border, and reveals the more subtle discussions taking place between the two governments.

Mexico’s president’s office, the Interior Ministry and the Foreign Ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Speaking on condition of anonymity because the figures are not yet public, a U.S. official said separately that the area of opium poppies under cultivation in Mexico reached 32,000 hectares in 2016, equivalent to about 81 tonnes.

In 2015, Mexico had 28,000 hectares under cultivation, almost triple the area in 2012, according to U.S. data.

Support for eradicating Mexico’s opium crop could come in various forms, Brownfield said. For example, the U.S. government could provide more vehicles, or pay for helicopter flights to access the isolated, mountainous regions where poppy is grown.

“If it’s a matter of having other sorts of equipment, we could talk about support in terms of equipment,” he said.

The INL will not write Mexico a blank check but is willing to help fund specific units involved in eradication, he said.

Mexico is engaged in fraught discussions with the Trump administration over drug trafficking, trade and immigration, and Trump focused on the heroin scourge in his election campaign.

Nonetheless, Brownfield said the two governments were making substantial progress.

“Our cooperation with the Mexican government on the heroin challenge is in fact good, and it is better than it has ever been in the past,” he said.

Brownfield also confirmed a Reuters report that Mexico’s army is allowing the United States and the United Nations to observe eradication efforts.

(Reporting by Gabriel Stargardter; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

Heroin use, addiction up sharply in the U.S.: study

FILE PHOTO - A man injects himself with heroin using a needle obtained from the People's Harm Reduction Alliance, the nation's largest needle-exchange program, in Seattle, Washington April 30, 2015. REUTERS/David Ryder/File Photo

By Patricia Reaney

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Heroin use in the United States has risen five-fold in the past decade and dependence on the drug has more than tripled, with the biggest jumps among whites and men with low incomes and little education, researchers said on Wednesday.

Whites aged 18 to 44 accounted for the biggest rise in heroin addiction, which has been fueled in part by the misuse of opioid prescription drugs.

The findings are troubling because the people most affected have few resources to deal with the problem, said Dr. Silvia Martins, an associate professor of epidemiology at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, and her colleagues.

“We are seeing that heroin use has increased in the past 10 years,” Martins said in a phone interview. “It is more prominent among whites with lower incomes and education and young adults.”

Heroin use, which includes those who have tried the drug but not become dependent on it, and addiction also rose more among unmarried adults. Although a jump was seen among women, it as was not as prominent as for men.

The researchers found no differences in heroin use or addiction among the major regions of the country.

The findings, published online in the journal JAMA Psychiatry, followed a statement from the American College of Physicians calling for drug addiction and substance abuse disorders to be treated as a chronic medical condition like diabetes or hypertension.

It also coincided with the expected appointment of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to head a federal commission to combat the problem. Christie has declared opioid drug abuse a public health crisis.

Martins agreed drug addiction should be treated as an illness.

“By recognizing it is a disease, more people will become aware that they need to seek help, or if they are frequent users, to know that addiction is preventable,” she said.

Martins and her colleagues uncovered the trend by analyzing two studies, one from 2001-2002 and another from 2012-2013, and data from 43,000 long-term heroin users.

In 2001-2002, there were similar rates of heroin use between whites and non-whites, but by 2013 there was a significant race gap, according to the study.

Martins called for expanding treatment programs, overdose prevention and medication-assisted treatment, and for a change in doctors’ prescribing practices for opioids.

“I think some level of regulation is needed,” she said. “At the same time people who truly need that medication should get it but with greater supervision.”

(Reporting by Patricia Reaney; Editing by Patrick Enright and Paul Simao)

Heroin use at 20-year high in U.S. drug ‘epidemic’, U.N. says

Heroin Pile

By Shadia Nasralla

VIENNA (Reuters) – A heroin “epidemic” is gripping the United States, where cheap supply has helped push the number of users to a 20-year high, increasing drug-related deaths, the United Nations said on Thursday.

According to the U.N.’s World Drug Report 2016, the number of heroin users in the United States reached around one million in 2014, almost three times as many as in 2003. Heroin-related deaths there have increased five-fold since 2000.

“There is really a huge epidemic (of) heroin in the U.S.,” said Angela Me, the chief researcher for the report which was released on Thursday.

“It is the highest definitely in the last 20 years,” Me said, adding that the trend was continuing.

The rise could be linked to U.S. legislation introduced in recent years which makes it harder to abuse prescription opioids such as oxicodone, a powerful painkiller that can have similar effects to heroin, Me said.

The law meant the texture of the pills was changed to make it more difficult to crush them and inject them into the blood stream, Me said.

“This has caused a partial shift from the misuse of these prescription opioids to heroin.”

Another reason for the increase in the use of heroin, which in the United States mainly comes from Mexico and Colombia, is greater supply that has depressed prices in recent years, Me said.

The United States has also seen a spike in deaths related to fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times more so than morphine, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Fentanyl has been named as the drug that killed pop singer Prince this year.

At least 207,000 deaths globally were drug-related in 2014, with heroin use and overdose-related deaths increasing sharply also over the last two years, according to the Vienna-based U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

“Heroin continues to be the drug that kills the most people and this resurgence must be addressed urgently,” Yury Fedotov, the executive director of the UNODC, said.

U.S. President Barack Obama earlier this year asked Congress for $1.1 billion in new funding over two years to expand treatment for users of heroin and prescription painkillers.

(Editing by Robin Pomeroy)


Mexico, U.S. Canada to launch heroin fight at Three Amigos Summit

Paulo Carreno, Mexican deputy foreign minister in charge of North America, speaks during an interview in Mexico City

By Dave Graham and Ana Isabel Martinez

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Mexico, the United States and Canada will unveil a plan to combat increased opium poppy cultivation and heroin use across North America at a summit later this month, a senior Mexican official said on Thursday.

Leaders of the three nations are due to meet in Ottawa on June 29, amid growing concern about the rising North American death toll from opioids such as heroin and fentanyl, and a surge in poppy cultivation in Mexico by violent drug gangs.

In a phone call last month, U.S. President Barack Obama and his Mexican counterpart Enrique Pena Nieto agreed to intensify the fight against heroin production, and government officials say the problem has been under discussion for months.

Paulo Carreno, Mexican deputy foreign minister in charge of North America, said in an interview that Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was also committed to the plan due to be launched at the so-called Three Amigos summit later this month.

“This isn’t just about destroying (plantations), it’s about finding solutions for people forced to cultivate poppies, and there will be an important announcement in this context at the summit on a new cooperation plan between the three countries to deal with problems that obviously concerns us all,” he said.

Carreno declined to offer details but said additional resources would devoted to all parts of the problem.

“To combating it, to eradicating it, but also to reducing demand significantly and addressing the social aspect,” he said.

Pena Nieto took office in December 2012 pledging to bring Mexico’s drug cartels to heel, but sickening gang violence has been a blight on his administration and cultivation of opium poppies used to make heroin has surged.

Between 2012 and 2015, the area under poppy cultivation in Mexico, which officials say is the most important supplier of heroin to the United States, rose from 10,500 hectares to 28,000 hectares, according to figures published by the White House.

At the same time, fatal heroin overdoses in the United States have risen steeply, with some 10,574 deaths reported in 2014, a rise of 26 percent from the previous year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

That figure is six times higher than the total in 2001, the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse says.

“Right now there’s a lot of concern here in the United States because we are suffering from a major, major heroin epidemic,” said Mike Vigil, a former head of global operations for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

A large part of the Mexican increase in cultivation has been in the violent southwestern state of Guerrero, where 43 trainee teachers were abducted by a drug gang and corrupt police in September 2014, then murdered, according to the government.

To cut gang violence, Guerrero’s governor has floated the idea of regulating poppy production for medicinal purposes, an option which the Mexican government has studied.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, one senior Mexican official said the United States was prepared to offer Mexico more material support to tackle heroin production.

However, a U.S. official said the two sides were still discussing which measures to adopt. One subject under discussion is finding alternative crops for opium poppy farmers to grow.

(Reporting by Dave Graham; Editing by Bernard Orr)