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Heroin Trafficking: History

The origins of the present international illegal heroin trade can be traced back to laws passed in many countries in the early 1900s that closely regulated the production and sale of opium and its derivatives including heroin. At first, heroin flowed from countries where it was still legal into countries where it was no longer legal. By the mid-1920s, heroin production had been made illegal in many parts of the world. An illegal trade developed at that time between heroin labs in China (mostly in Shanghai and Tianjin) and other nations. The weakness of government in China and conditions of civil war enabled heroin production to take root there. Chinese triad gangs eventually came to play a major role in the heroin trade. French Connection route started in the 1930s.

Heroin trafficking was virtually eliminated in the U.S. during World War II due to temporary trade disruptions caused by the war. Japan's war with China had cut the normal distribution routes for heroin and the war had generally disrupted the movement of opium.

After World War II, the Mafia took advantage of the weakness of the postwar Italian government and set up heroin labs in Sicily. The Mafia took advantage of Sicily's location along the historic route opium took westward into Europe and the United States.

Large scale international heroin production effectively ended in China with the victory of the communists in the civil war in the late 1940s.The elimination of Chinese production happened at the same time that Sicily's role in the trade developed.

Although it remained legal in some countries until after World War II, health risks, addiction, and widespread abuse led most western countries to declare heroin a controlled substance by the latter half of the 20th century.

In late 1960s and early 70s, the CIA supported anti-Communist Chinese Nationalists settled near Sino-Burmese border and Hmong tribesmen in Laos. This helped the development of the Golden Triangle opium production region, which supplied about one-third of heroin consumed in US after 1973 American withdrawal from Vietnam. As of 1999, Myanmar (former Burma), the heartland of the Golden Triangle remained the second largest producer of heroin, after Afghanistan.

Soviet-Afghan war led to increased production in the Pakistani-Afghani border regions, as U.S.-backed mujaheddin militants raised money for arms from selling opium, contributing heavily to the modern Golden Crescent creation. By 1980, 60% of heroin sold in the U.S. originated in Afghanistan. It increased international production of heroin at lower prices in the 1980s. The trade shifted away from Sicily in the late 1970s as various criminal organizations violently fought with each other over the trade. The fighting also led to a stepped up government law enforcement presence in Sicily.

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