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How Heroin Gets Here

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The Trade

The convoluted journey from Mexican poppy fields to American suburbia affects countless lives along the way.

Nearly all the bulk heroin seized in the U.S. today—93 percent—originated in Mexico or South America. This points to a vast new trade in the world’s most potent—and lethal—narcotic. Heroin flows easily across the border between the US and Mexico, and then streams along America’s interstate highways to the cities and suburbs that have become the new capitals of addiction.

From the “gardens” of Mexico’s Guerrero province to the suburban homes of Dayton and Atlanta in the US, the opioid trade has become an enormous business. In 2015 it was reported by the US Department of the Treasury that more than $12 billion in cash flows from American addicts and users back through dealers and distributors to smugglers, refiners, farmers, transporters, and enforcers, with the bulk of the profits ending up in the hands of the cartel bosses in Mexico. In May 2017, heroin’s cost to society in the US was calculated at over $50 billion a year, including the costs of medical treatment, law enforcement, and prisons.

The drug trade has helped make large swaths of Mexico a violent and lawless human jungle, and it’s ravaged the cities and suburbs where heroin has become the drug of those with no choice. In Montgomery County, Ohio, home of Dayton, the worst-hit city in one of the worst-hit states in the US, the epidemic has become a mass casualty event, with 42.5 overdose deaths per 100,000 residents, or an estimated 800 deaths in 2017. But heroin doesn’t just hit aging industrial towns. In the prosperous northern suburbs of Atlanta, a heroin epidemic has been raging for several years, fueled by over-prescription of opioid painkillers and easy proximity to a main interstate highway trafficking route. Below, take a journey from the poppy fields of Mexico to the arms of the users in the US.

Infographic by Sarah MacReading