Heroin: The Colombia poppy fields

February 8, 2010 8:48:51 PM PST
From the source to the suburbs, we begin an extraordinary series on heroin, tracing the pipeline from Colombia to the streets of our neighborhoods where young people are overdosing and dying in alarming numbers.

Colombia now totally controls the heroin market in the Eastern part of the United States and New York City is the hub for retail distribution. The biggest demand now is in the suburbs and nowhere is the demand greater than Long Island.

So hard to believe picture perfect poppies could produce such a potent poison. The source of heroin that's streaming into our suburbs is fields of flowers hidden in this spectacular landscape, deep in the mountains of Colombia, South America. The poison pipeline is creating a new generation of heroin addicts, like these on Long Island, thousands of miles away.

We're traveling to the front lines of the new war on heroin with federal drug agents on a DEA plane from Colombia's capital city of Bogota to Ipiales, a sleepy town at an altitude of 10,000 feet near the Ecuadorian border. It is also the hub of the country's heroin trade.

Our heavily armed escorts are machine gun toting anti-narcotics officers with the Colombian national police.

We ride in a caravan for nearly two hours along windy roads with hairpin turns, thru quaint villages, above the clouds, and then we hike up a long, dirt trail.

We're heading into an area where the provisional police have a received a tip there are some poppy fields.

The tip pays off. This is where the flowers flourish - cool, humid conditions at a high altitude, but it is treacherous territory. It can take police days of searching to find one field, often camouflaged by other legitimate crops.

"Finding it is like finding a needle in a haystack," Chris Stankaitis of the DEA Heroin Task Force said.

There are other dangers lurking. This is FARC territory. That's the revolutionary, anti-government group that uses money from drug trafficking to fund its terrorist activities.

"It's like an IED. It's the equivalent of an IED and they're putting them in the fields," Jay Bergmann, Regional DEA Director in Colombia, said. "There are insurgents and narco-terrorists out there that mean to do us harm."

And our group is considered a high-value kidnapping target, so our time here is limited. But the captain does show us ultimate source of heroin called latex.

CAPTAIN: "When the petals fall off then they'll start cutting, the scoring the bulb they call it."
WALLACE: "So that's the latex?"
CAPTAIN: "Yes, this is the latex?"
WALLACE: "That's what's used to make heroin."
WALLACE: "Like gum. It's sticky, gummy."

When they do find the fields, police eradicate the plants by hand, but they know how much is getting away. The latex taken to nearby labs to be processed with other chemicals to make heroin.

"They could have a lab right in this house? It looks very normal," Stankaitis said.

It's an overwhelming challenge against a very determined enemy; the heroin is often being moved by land, right across the border into Ecuador and then up thru Mexico to the U.S. and ultimately New York.

"It's in tractor trailers. It's in passenger vehicles," John Gilbride of the DEA said.

But often it's being carried by human beings who are paid thousands of dollars to bring heroin into the United States anyway they can.

On Tuesday on Eyewitness News, we're there at the airport in Bogota, Colombia when police get a tip about a pair of heroin mules, or couriers, who are leaving on a flight. We'll show you what happens next. It's incredible video. That's Tuesday on Eyewitness News at 5:00 p.m. when we continue our special series.

If you have a tip about this or any other issue you'd like investigated, please give our tipline a call at 877-TIP-NEWS. You may also e-mail us at the.investigators@abc.com and follow Jim Hoffer on Twitter at twitter.com/nycinvestigates