Latin America has replaced Asia as the source for most of the heroin seized in the United States, as the Colombian drug cartels have branched out from cocaine into other drugs, federal agents say.

The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy says high-quality white heroin from Colombia today comprises 60 percent of the drug seized in the United States _ marking a dramatic shift in the source of heroin sold on U.S. streets.

In 1989, almost 96 percent of the heroin seized in the United States originated in Asia, but Drug Enforcement Administration agents say that today it has dwindled to less than 10 percent of the market in spite of a large increase in heroin production in Afghanistan and Burma _ historically the major source of heroin in the world.

DEA agent Steve Robertson said economics are driving the Colombian drug smugglers into the lucrative heroin market.

“For 1 kilogram of heroin you can get $55,000, while for 1 kilogram of coke (cocaine) it’s $17,000 to $25,000. It’s a market decision _ it’s all true business,” he said. “The Colombians have seen a market.”

The DEA says Colombian smuggling methods also are maturing. In the 1990s, couriers who could each swallow 50 to 80 rubber containers of heroin brought most of the Latin American heroin smuggled into the Untied States.

But agents say that today, Colombian smugglers have become more creative to smuggle larger quantities. The DEA this week announced the results of a yearlong investigation called Operation High Step, which started when agents found heroin being smuggled in the heels of high-step shoes and ended with 78 arrests.

The investigation showed that smugglers also secreted heroin inside the porcelain frames of paintings, sewed into the lining of imported clothing, and in compartments built into wooden dresser cabinets. High Step ended with the seizure of 78 kilograms of heroin and 39 kilograms of cocaine smuggled into Boston, New York, Chicago and Orlando, Fla. A kilogram is 2.2 pounds.

The DEA estimates that the smuggling ring was responsible for importing 25 kilograms a month from a laboratory near Pereira, Colombia.

Robertson said Colombian heroin is purer than the Mexican black-tar heroin, which is marketed primarily around the U.S.-Mexican border and accounts for 24 percent of the heroin sold in the United States. The White House drug office says there is also evidence of low-level poppy production in Venezuela and Peru, which U.S. officials are monitoring to guard against those countries becoming a source for the drug here.

The White House drug office says heroin addiction has been increasing and estimates there are about 1 million heroin addicts in the United States.

(Contact Lance Gay at GayL(at)