Meth Inc.: Industrial-scale Mexican labs now pushing top-grade poison our way

2011-07-31T00:03:00Z Meth Inc.: Industrial-scale Mexican labs now pushing top-grade poison our wayClayton Norman For The Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

Corporate meth has arrived in Tucson.

This high-end, extremely pure, extremely potent speed is manufactured by organizations with the knowledge to craft a superior product and the distribution networks to get it into the hands of customers worldwide. It is purer and more potent than ever.

It isn't the meth of a few years back, the kind a small-scale dealer or addict could cook up for less than a hundred bucks and the time it took to mix, heat and decant a few noxious chemicals.

Legislation restricting the availability of precursor chemicals ephedrine and pseudoephedrine in 2005 effectively killed domestic production of meth in Arizona - and handed the market to Mexican drug-trafficking organizations.

Those organizations, including the Sinaloa gang in Sonora, have refined meth-processing techniques and circumvented regulations on the chemicals necessary to make the drug, Angela Walker, a forensic chemist at the Drug Enforcement Administration's south-central laboratory in Texas, told a group of drug and community-health researchers in January.

"They have full-scale, huge operations," Walker said. "They have very good chemists who know what they're doing, and they make a very good product."

Meth has reached a 10-year high in terms of purity and a 10-year low in terms of price per gram, the Department of Justice's 2010 National Drug Threat Assessment said.

Tucson is a major distribution hub of corporate meth. The Border Patrol's Tucson Sector seized at least 450 pounds of meth this year through May. In 2010, local police agencies and the Pima County Sheriff's Department seized more than 20 pounds of the drug and handled 257 methamphetamine investigations across Pima County.

Tucson police estimate law enforcement may be catching only 10 percent of what is moved through Pima County. If that's true, about 4,050 pounds of meth may have slipped past the patrol's Tucson Sector and more than 190 pounds may have made it onto the streets of Tucson or been moved through Pima County.

The damage caused by meth extends beyond addicts and their families. There is a strong correlation - some law enforcement officials say a direct correlation - between meth use and property crime. Addicts become essentially unemployable, say officials, and often turn to theft, fraud and burglary to support their habits. In 2010, property crime cost Tucson more than $117 million.

Breaking up these new meth rings is especially challenging because they leave few footprints. Distributing marijuana requires a stash house - and law enforcement has been effective in training neighborhood associations to spot and report suspected drug houses. The old-school method of selling meth included low-level criminals cooking or importing small amounts of the drug and breaking it down, and then trading it with lower-level criminals for stolen cash, property or identification cards.

Selling this new meth, however, requires little more than a small stash and a cellphone. While that's also true of other high-potency drugs like cocaine and heroin, meth is especially worrisome to authorities: A meth high can last for hours and cause paranoia and hallucinations, sometimes leading to violent behavior.

Meth, Crime in Pima County

More Mexican meth is coming into Pima County.

Border Patrol seizures in the Tucson Sector soared from 58 pounds last year to 225 pounds by the end of April 2011. A May 2011 seizure near Ajo netted another 225 pounds, bringing the 2011 total to at least 450 pounds - an increase of 676 percent from 2010.

Among other hard drugs, heroin seizures remain a tiny fraction of that amount, but meth seizures are approaching those of cocaine.

The rising numbers are unsettling to law enforcement officers - not just the drug itself, but the crimes that come with it. Ted Miller, author of a 2006 study for the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation - a nonprofit institute that researches drug abuse, public health and crime - analyzed nationwide surveys of state and federal inmates administered by the U.S. Census Bureau and found "illicit drug involvement in 25 percent of homicides, 39 percent of robberies, 36 percent of thefts and 23 percent of motor vehicle thefts."

The study did not single out meth, but Richard Wintory, Arizona's assistant attorney general and a former Pima County prosecutor, says the drug has cost the area in a number of ways.

"Menace," he said, "is something you can feel. That's the danger that a drug like methamphetamine poses. You're afraid to park your car on the street. You're afraid to leave your kid's bike out on the porch. Retired people, veterans, people who've lived their lives and done their best can't just be left alone to enjoy the blessings of liberty because they're worried about some tweaker doing something crazy."

Law enforcement officials estimate drug abuse, including meth, is behind as much as 50 percent of all property crimes.

There's a simple connection between hard drugs and crime, particularly property crimes like theft and burglary, said Sgt. William Kaderly, a Tucson police officer working with the Counter Narcotics Alliance, a cooperative of local law enforcement.

"Most meth users don't have 9-to-5 jobs," he said. "They have to support their use."

Corporate Meth

In the not-too-distant past, anyone could easily procure the gear and chemicals necessary to cook a batch of methamphetamine. The process was dangerous but simple enough that a quick Google search would turn up a handful of recipes suitable for the determined do-it-yourselfer.

Mexican gangs were in on the action, too, exporting high-quality meth throughout the United States. But the relatively low barriers to making homemade crank meant that, for a while, meth was maybe the most democratic of illegal drugs. Anyone could make it.

That changed in 2005 in Arizona, with the passage of legislation that made it much harder to get pseudoephedrine - the chemical cornerstone of meth. States around the nation enacted similar legislation, shutting down most home meth labs in the United States.

"Smurfing" - going to multiple pharmacies and buying the maximum allowed amount of pseudoephedrine-containing products - demands too much effort and risk for too small a return. Mexican gangs, however, are able to buy multiton shipments of pseudoephedrine and produce meth in batches of pounds at a time.

"There's no doubt we kicked the stuffing out of the mom-and-pop operations and the shake-and-bake-type cooks by putting pseudoephedrine behind the counter," says Wintory, the deputy attorney general. He has been prosecuting meth cases in Southern Arizona for years, targeting large-scale operations.

The DEA seized 10 methamphetamine labs in Tucson between 2004 and 2006, its reports show. Meanwhile, local law enforcement found six in 2007, three in 2009 and 2010, and one so far this year.

The supply of drugs went down, but demand remained - creating an ideal market for Mexican drug gangs.

The Mexican government has been unable to prevent drug gangs from importing pseudoephedrine from India and China.

At times when pseudoephedrine is hard to come by, the chemists produce a weaker form of meth, then repeatedly "wash" it in a common food additive to remove impurities and produce meth that is highly potent and nearly 100 percent pure.

Because of the massive profits the organizations can bring in, "meth is an important product for them to expand into," Wintory said. "So, like Starbuck's goes into macchiatos, they're going to go into methamphetamine."

Wholesale, a pound of meth brings in $15,000 to $18,000, said Kaderly, of the Counter Narcotics Alliance. Commonly used amounts sell for $80 to $125 for one-sixteenth of an ounce and twice that for one-eighth of an ounce, he said.

And getting it across the border is relatively easy.

Kaderly has seen hidden compartments in cars and Tupperware containers filled with glassy shards of meth. Each one might carry 1 to 1 1/2 pounds of methamphetamine.

Tucson is both distribution hub and marketplace for meth, says Kaderly.

The knowledge that cheaper, stronger crank is on the way worries Heather Siegele, supervisor of the Pima County attorney's narcotics unit.

"It's such a nasty drug," she said. "Higher purity, higher potency. It just does terrible things."

Clayton R. Norman is a freelance journalist based in Tucson. Contact him at claytonrnorman@gmail.com

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