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Houston HIDTA

General Information:
  Year of Designation:  1990
  Geographic Area of Responsibility:

Aransas, Brooks, Fort Bend, Galveston, Hardin, Harris, Jefferson, Jim Wells, Kenedy, Kleberg, Liberty, Nueces, Orange, Refugio, San Patricio and Victoria counties

    Contact: (281) 372-5857

Mission Statement:

“To reduce drug availability through the creation and nurture of intelligence-driven task forces targeting major trafficking organizations, money laundering organizations and drug gangs. Further, the Houston HIDTA will enhance and help coordinate efforts among federal, state, and local enforcement agencies.”

Threat Abstract:

A combination of geographic, demographic, and economic factors contributes to the obstacles that law enforcement encountered from the drug trade throughout the Houston HIDTA. Chief among these include the HIDTA's relative proximity to Mexico, its extensive transportation infrastructure, its diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds, and its well-developed system of international commerce.

These factors not only render the HIDTA a highly sophisticated and competitive region in terms of the world market, but also reinforce the HIDTA's vulnerability as one of the nation's primary distribution and transshipment hubs for regional, national, and international drug trafficking organizations. The region is also an important conduit for the movement of drug proceeds back to source countries. Drug-related threats presented by criminal groups in the Houston HIDTA include the laundering of drug profits, the trafficking of firearms and aliens, and escalating acts of violence.

A complex transportation infrastructure throughout the 425 miles of coastline and 16 counties that encompass the Houston HIDTA enables direct access from air, land, and sea routes.

Overland means is the primary transportation threat facing the Houston HIDTA. The 15,124 lane miles of state roadways, including six major highways, aptly illustrate the threat to the HIDTA by land. The primary routes throughout the HIDTA are U.S. 281, U.S. 77, U.S. 59, I-37, I-45, and I-10.

The Houston Airport System (HAS) is the sixth largest in the world. In the year 2003, the HAS handled more than 42 million passengers and 743 million pounds of cargo.

Sea traffic apparently poses a moderate threat to the Houston HIDTA. Drug trafficking through the region's waterways and ports is difficult to detect due to the sheer volume of cargo entering the area. Over 455 million tons of cargo passed through Houston HIDTA ports in 2002 (most current data). Four of the top 15 ports ranked by total tonnage for 2002 are in the Houston HIDTA.

The primary drug threat for the Houston HIDTA continues to be cocaine/crack cocaine. Secondary threats include marijuana, methamphetamine, heroin, and Ecstasy. Cocaine and marijuana pose stable, chronic threats, whereas methamphetamine, heroin, and Ecstasy are relatively recent threats and are increasing. Methamphetamine seizure amounts rose by 555% over 2002, while the number of labs seized increased 45% over 2002. This trend continues in 2004.

There were 288 DTOs identified in the most recent assessment. One hundred twelve (112) of those were targeted for enforcement or intelligence collection during 2003. Thirty-four percent (34%) of targeted DTOs were CPOT-related cases, 47% were OCFETF cases, and 32% were local cases. Additionally, the Houston HIDTA has active investigations connected to 50% of RPOT targets. In scope, 54% of targeted DTOs were international, 23% were national, 13% were regional, and 9% were local. Eighty- five percent (85%) of targeted DTOs have foreign sources of supply, primarily Mexico and Colombia. The Houston HIDTA serves as the base of operations for nearly half (49%) of targeted DTOs. At least 37% of targeted DTOs are polydrug organizations .

The primary activities of targeted DTOs operating in the Houston HIDTA are the distribution of drugs and the laundering of drug proceeds. At least 54% of targeted DTOs specifically distribute drugs (apart from production and transportation), with at least 39% of those involved in polydrug distribution. Eighty-four percent (84%) of targeted DTOs launder drug proceeds, primarily. through bulk currency shipments out of the U.S. using vehicles.

The most common drug-rated offenses (apart from drug trafficking) reported by participants in an annual Houston HIDTA survey were money laundering, assault, homicide, robbery and burglary.

UCR data shows that overall crime rates increased in all but two Houston HIDTA counties (Nueces and San Patricio) from 2001 to 2002 (most recent data). Nueces County had the highest overall crime per capita in 2002.

Homicides in the city of Houston increased by more than 8% to 278 from 2002 to 2003. Those homicides defined as drug-related declined by 17% during the same time frame.

Strategy Abstract:

Houston HIDTA comprises ten enforcement Initiatives, to address Trafficker Enforcement, Money Laundering, Gang Investigations, and Intelligence Development, and one administrative Initiative (which also brokers training for the 450-person HIDTA task force.) The enforcement Initiatives address the HIDTA's geographic and criminal characteristics for target organizations. The administrative Initiative supports management and oversight of the HIDTA program, and brokers training into the HIDTA community.

The Houston HIDTA Executive Board comprises 16 local, state, and federal law enforcement executives in southeastern Texas. The Administration component of the HIDTA is in Houston, while the operational components are based in Austin, Beaumont, Corpus Christi and Houston. The leverage provided by the multi-jurisdiction task force has proven invaluable in the successful prosecution of hundreds of DTOs since the HIDTA's inception in 1990. Formal participation by HIDTA task force member agencies with foreign nations' law enforcement agencies has improved international law enforcement communication, and facilitates future case cooperation.

The primary elements of the Strategy are: cooperative, collaborative task forces involving federal, state and local law enforcement officers; intelligence-driven investigations; investigative priorities; innovative approaches; and, accountability and oversight.

Some of the world's most significant traffickers, transporters and drug money launderers operate in the Houston HIDTA area. The Houston HIDTA Threat Assessment documents the threat that they pose to the rest of the country as well. Mindful of that threat, the Executive Board, based on intelligence from a variety of resources, has identified the Gulf Cartel and its various cells as the Houston HIDTA target that is most damaging to the country. Because of this, the primary enforcement objective of the Houston HIDTA is the immobilization of the Gulf Cartel. Intelligence Initiatives will gather all available intelligence on the cartel and will meet regularly with each Initiative, exploring investigative leads and possible courses of action. Cartel-related cases will become the investigative priority of each Initiative to the degree that those cases are part of the Initiative mission. The Board considers this a long-term project, likely to take several years to complete, and likely to require modification as traffickers adapt to enforcement pressure.

In a target-rich environment such as the Houston HIDTA, however, Initiatives cannot focus all of their efforts on one group: the second priority in the Houston HIDTA is cases of national significance, i.e., CPOT, RPOT, OCDETF, and cases with clear potential to fall into these categories. Finally, Initiatives must address the local threat as well. Since so many drugs transit the Houston HIDTA, Initiatives must work transportation cases, and their impetus is to turn drug seizures into drug investigations, especially when a seizure relates to primary targets. Methamphetamine is a growing problem and local agencies are ill equipped to deal with it, so the HIDTA Initiative will fill the gap. Several national gang sets operate in the Houston HIDTA and many local gangs terrorize Houston neighborhoods.

HIDTA Initiatives will combine time-tested methods of operation with innovative approaches like the Electronic Crimes Initiative or the wide-area network, which will allow agencies to share information and software with economy and efficiency.

Investigative Support Center:

The Houston HIDTA Intelligence Sub-System comprises three Intelligence Services Initiatives. They provide operational support through timely and actionable intelligence via the products and efforts of local, state and federal law enforcement personnel and databases to assist regional law enforcement agencies in counterdrug activities. The sub-system provides: tactical event and subject deconfliction services to support arrest and seizure operations, and for officer safety and enhanced intelligence production; operational intelligence support for active cases, participating in informant/defendant debriefings; cultivating new sources of information; performing post-seizure and search warrant analyses; disseminating officer safety alerts and “lookouts” for wanted subjects; strategic intelligence to refine targeting, to improve investigator management, to conduct and prepare Threat Assessments and other reports; and in- service analytical intelligence training. The Initiatives provide research and analytical support and prisoner debriefings, for intelligence-led investigations through access to dozens of criminal and commercial databases for HIDTA task force agencies (and others) in the region. The Initiatives also provide graphics production services for case briefings and court case presentation.

Participating Agencies:

State/Local: Beaumont Police Department, City of Baytown, Corpus Christi Police Department, Fort Bend County Sheriffs Office, Harris County Sheriffs Office, Houston Police Department, Jefferson County Sheriffs Office, Nueces County Sheriffs Office, Orange County Sheriffs Office, Pasadena Police Department, Port Arthur Police Department, Sam Houston State University, Texas Department of Public Safety, Texas Office of the Attorney General, Texas National Guard.

Federal: Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, Drug Enforcement Administration, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Internal Revenue Service- Criminal Investigation, United States Attorney's Offices (Eastern District of Texas and Southern District of Texas), United States Department of Defense, United States Marshals Service, United States Secret Service.

Significant Achievements:

Operation Enlightenment: This ongoing OCDETF/Priority Target investigation targeted a Houston-based organization that was trafficking methamphetamine, MDMA and hydroponic marijuana and blossomed into a Title III Electronic Intercept. Major Drug Squad 6 uncovered a multi-cultural group headed by an Asian defendant with ties to a Chinese smuggling group responsible for the smuggling and distribution in excess of 500 lbs. of crystal methamphetamine. This organization used technology such as text messaging and email to circumvent law enforcement. In 2003, MDS dismantled this organization by arresting 31 defendants, and seizing more than $2,000,000 in assets purchased with drug proceeds. Agents made PowerPoint presentations to the defendants and their attorneys that incorporated surveillance videos, wiretap conversations, and still photography and resulted in plea agreements from all of the defendants. Federal prosecutors agreed that his novel technique saved taxpayers considerable resources in terms of time and money. The dismantlement of this organization has significantly influenced the availability of crystal methamphetamine in the Houston, Texas area. This case carried over to 2004 with additional indictments and identification of new targets.

Operation Get Shorty: This case is based on a successful OCDETF investigation in CY02 that resulted in 12(twelve) Title III wire intercepts and thirty (30) pen registers that originated from an undercover money pickup operation by Houston Money Laundering Initiative agents. In CY03, the investigation continued to focus on members of the Gulf Cartel who were responsible for the importation and distribution of approximately 600 kilograms of cocaine and the collection of approximately $10,000,000 of illicit proceeds monthly. Using confidential informants, agents made several narcotic and currency seizures in Atlanta and Houston. The individuals associated with the seizures are high-ranking associates of the Gulf Cartel . In addition, agents plan to seize two real properties valued in excess of more than one million dollars. To date, the investigation has resulted in forty-two (42) indictments and the seizure of 851 kilograms of cocaine, 1, 3777 pounds of marijuana, eleven (11) vehicles and $6.5 million in U.S. currency (narcotics generated proceeds).

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Last Updated: February 7, 2005