Challenges of Stamping Out Stimulants

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Chapter 5
Challenges of Stamping Out Stimulants

Illegal stimulants are big business all over the world. Across the United States, where illegal drugs are in great demand, sales of cocaine and methamphetamine are brisk. For thirty years, drug enforcement agencies in the United States have tirelessly attacked the illegal stimulant business on multiple fronts. Sources and shipments of stimulants have been destroyed, leaders of drug organizations have been arrested, and stimulant users have been sent to prison, treatment centers, or both. Nevertheless, Americans continue to have access to and use these dangerous drugs.

How can authorities most effectively stop the endless flow of illegal stimulants into the U.S. market? They direct most of their efforts at investigating the origins of the two most dangerous illegal stimulants marketed on American soil, cocaine and methamphetamine, and then they attack these drugs at their sources. For cocaine, which is grown in foreign countries, this means halting shipments before they arrive in the United States. For meth, authorities locate and destroy the laboratories where it is made.

From Leaf to Lab

Most of the cocaine sold in the United States has its roots in the hilly countrysides of Colombia and Peru. Growers pick their crops of coca leaves every three or four days and then carry the harvest to a nearby lab. There, the first step required to purify cocaine from coca leaves takes place: The leaves are converted to cocaine paste. With every step of cocaine processing, profits skyrocket. It takes about 250 pounds of coca leaves, several crops that net the farmer only $150, to make a pound of cocaine paste. Each pound of paste is then sold to a dealer in a nearby city for about $1,500. Dealers finish processing the paste into consumable cocaine, which they sell to customers in the United States for about $15,000. The price hike between paste in South America and product in the United States reflects the risks involved in smuggling cocaine into the country.

Worldwide production, sales, and distribution of cocaine are controlled by organized criminal groups based in Colombia. The heads of these groups are dubbed "drug lords." According to cocaine historian Mike Gray, Colombia's geography is ideal for cocaine trafficking:

The country's position at the top of the continent made it the natural jumping-off place for United States–bound traffic, and its access to ports on both the Pacific and Caribbean combined with native hustle [eagerness to work hard] to create a hot-house environment for smugglers.68

Drug lords work closely with organized crime in Mexico and the Dominican Republic. Together, the multinational groups form private armies that specialize in transporting cocaine across land, air, and sea. One of their favorite delivery routes uses entry points along the border between the United States and Mexico.

Sneaking In

Much of the two-thousand-mile southern U.S. border is uninhabited, wide-open space. However, in places where there are people, towns, and roads, border patrol agents regulate travel, trying to slow the stream of drugs into the United States. Customs inspector Tom Isbell has been guarding the border for twenty-six years. Isbell says that he and his men cannot stop and search every vehicle that is lined up to pass through the border checkpoints. Instead, they watch the vehicles and try to spot drivers who look tense, vigilant, or scared. Isbell has an excellent record for picking out cars and vans carrying drugs. "It's an instinct," he shrugs. Isbell and his fellow workers seize large quantities—hundreds of pounds—of drugs. But compared to the amount of drugs that make it across the border, their seizures are small. According to Isbell, "We intercept maybe five percent."69

At sea, one of the most popular cocaine delivery paths is from Colombia to the western coast of Mexico or the Yucatán peninsula. Workers load large boxes filled with illicit cargo onto fishing boats at Colombian ports and unload the boats in Mexico. There, the big shipping crates of cocaine are divided into smaller parcels that can be inconspicuously carried over the U.S. border. A less hectic marine route is through the Caribbean. Drug lords use Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and Haiti as cocaine drops. Much of the cocaine traveling through these islands is destined for the eastern United States.

Beres Spence, the chief of the narcotics division of Haiti's police force, has his hands full: "Where we used to see maybe one boatload of cocaine a week, we're now seeing three to four boatloads of cocaine, each weighing 800 to 1,800 pounds." Compounding matters, the Haitian shoreline is extensive, and his law enforcement teams are scattered thin in their efforts to secure it. Despite his efforts, many smugglers enter undetected. As Spence explains, "Traffickers can access every inch of our shoreline, but it would be impossible for us to cover every inch."70

In her job as a reporter for ABC News, Deborah Amos has witnessed the kind of problems Spence has to deal with. She says, "The cocaine flow in the Caribbean has increased approximately 60 percent [from 1999 to 2002], and the flow in Haiti has increased about 50 percent." What makes the problem difficult to deal with is that "the methods for smuggling drugs are both impressive and elaborate." For example, Amos recalled an incident in which "customs agents hauled five freighters out of the water after an informant told them where to search. They found $25 million worth of cocaine stashed in secret compartments four floors below deck, covered by fuel oil and thick sludge…. These ships often go unnoticed in the busy port of Miami."71

Jamaica is another convenient shipping hub. Located halfway between South America and the United States, Jamaica sees cocaine that may be en route to Europe, Canada, or the United States. Shipments destined for the United States are loaded on fast boats that travel close to the Florida shore. From there the shipments are transferred onto pleasure boats or fishing boats for distribution along the coast.

All of this illegal activity has substantially increased the workload of the U.S. Coast Guard. According to the Office of National

Drug Control Policy, the Coast Guard has geared up to meet the challenge by

acquiring new equipment, developing new capabilities, and changing useof-force policies. [For example,] initial deployments of specially configured helicopters and pursuit boats utilizing a new policy of warning shots and disabling fire [gunfire meant to slow boats that are evading the Coast Guard] was highly successful, resulting in the seizure of 3,014 pounds of cocaine … in a two month period [in 1999].72

Tactics to Crush Coca

The federal government knows that, unfortunately, it cannot stop all cocaine from entering the United States. So, it has adopted another strategy, one that focuses on eliminating the source of the problem, the coca plants themselves. Several programs have been devised to destroy coca plants, such as spraying the plants with herbicide or cutting them down. Efforts to teach farmers how to raise legal crops in their place have been tried in the past and are still under way today. So far, these plant-elimination tactics seem to help temporarily, but most farmers eventually return to the lucrative coca business.

In the past, the United States has received little support from political leaders in South America in its efforts to slow the production of coca. However, that situation has changed recently. Colombia's current president, Alvaro Uribe, is interested in working with the United States to get rid of coca in his country. He has launched an assault on coca crops that is intended to cripple the industry. According to Amos, Uribe promises to make "Colombia drug-free by the end of his term in 2006."73 U.S. officials believe that Uribe's position will eventually reduce the supply of cocaine.

Speed on the Market

Unlike cocaine, methamphetamine is usually manufactured in the United States. After amphetamines were first introduced in the 1920s, enterprising chemists in California figured out how to make the drugs for themselves. With a little research and experimentation, home-based chemists also came up with the recipe for the more potent form, methamphetamine. Illegal labs for manufacturing speed sprang up almost overnight on the West Coast.

These labs developed in many shapes and sizes. Dr. Roger Smith's 1969 report on the "Speed Marketplace" explains the diversity of these early labs:

A speed laboratory may range from a well organized, highly efficient operation, capable of producing five to twenty five pounds [from about 225,000 to about 1,125,000 ten-milligram doses] of speed per week consistently, to a kitchen or bathroom in a small apartment, producing less than an ounce per week, to a college chemistry laboratory where a student produces speed only occasionally, when he needs money or feels that the chances of detection are slight.74

Criminal organizations based in California controlled the recipes, manufacture, sales, and distribution of meth. For twenty years, meth sales remained concentrated in California and a few nearby states, so law enforcement initially assessed meth as a local problem. However, by the early 1990s, gangs had decided to capitalize on the popular West Coast drug and expand their market. With a made-for-order system in place, meth production grew into a national moneymaking enterprise.

Success attracts attention, and it was not long before gangs in Mexico established their own superlabs south of the border. Meth was easily smuggled into the United States along with cocaine; then both drugs were dispersed through the cocaine distribution networks. Once the professional drug traffickers got into the business, meth's popularity quickly spread across the country.

Mom and Pop Take Chemistry

With the advent of the Internet, gangs and Mexican drug cartels lost their exclusive ownership of meth recipes. Directions for whipping up a batch of meth became easy to come by. As a result, tiny meth labs began to appear across the United States. Today these small labs, along with the major California and Mexican manufacturers, are the primary providers of meth.

Although Mexican and Californian labs crank out meth in large quantities of twenty pounds or more per cook, many users prefer to buy from small local labs. Amateur chemists set up what some law enforcement officers call "Mom and Pop" labs in homes, storage facilities, motels, and open fields. Unless an informant tips off police officers, these labs are very difficult for them to find. Most do not operate full-time, gearing up to cook meth only when a new batch is needed. Many are mobile labs whisked from one place to another in the backs of vans and trunks of cars. One police officer on routine patrol found a man making meth in his car in the parking lot of a high school.

Lab Busts

Once they are found, busting at-home meth labs is serious and dangerous work. Police have to deal with the booby traps that paranoid meth cooks use to protect themselves from intruders. It is not unusual to find attack dogs tied to front and back doors and guns and ammunition hidden around the lab. All of these elements create a risky situation.

Journalist Jon Bonné joined the Pierce County sheriff's meth lab team on a busy workday. Bonné describes the tense preparations

A Meth Cook's Story

The life of an illegal drug manufacturer is put in sharp perspective in "A Meth Cook Speaks from Prison." Posted on the Web site the New Lycaeum, this article, written by a former meth cook who is now in jail, gives some sage advice for those who think that stirring up a batch of meth is no big deal.

Some people out there seem to think that the Federal Prison is a "cake-walk" but it's not…. Imagine your bathroom with a bunk bed in place of the bathtub, and a desk and two lockers jammed in there. That's my room. I share that with a roommate…. Life here is very monotonous. Nothing ever changes except the date and the faces. Someone tells you when to eat, sleep, stand, work…. If you don't play the game by their rules, they can make this a very unpleasant experience. Believe me, none of you want to come here…. I live in a nightmare and I've been here so long that I've almost forgotten what physical human contact feels like. I don't remember what it's like to get in my car and go to the store. Okay, maybe I did deserve to come here. I was actually manufacturing methamphetamine on a large scale for personal greed and amusement. I'm not disputing that fact. I'm just writing in hopes that my post will open the eyes of some of you…. You see … I have noth ing to lose.

for a meth lab bust: "In the town's small courtroom, 20 officers are briefed…. Team members review aerial photos and share details of how the bust will unfold…. The officers don tac tical assault gear—body armor, headsets and helmets—and prepare to head out." At the bust site, tensions remain high. Bonné continues:

A convoy of about a dozen vehicles winds its way across town to the bust site. Deputies leap out and shout, "Police! Search warrant!" as they bust into the backyard shack where the suspect lives…. The suspect appears taken by surprise and is quickly cuffed.

The deputies, along with local officers and DEA [Drug Enforcement Administration] agents, fan out across the property, which is covered with overgrowth and littered with the hulks of rusting trucks and campers. They move through the high brush in a single file, alert for possible snipers or hidden evidence. The sheriff's raid command center, a modified recreational vehicle with "Pierce County Clandestine Lab Team" painted on the side, pulls into the driveway to process whatever substances the deputies find.75

From a law enforcement point of view, these small labs may be more troublesome than large factories like those in Mexico and California because they are difficult to locate. The DEA explains that the proliferation of meth labs has spread the drug across the United States. In Alabama, for example, the problem is growing rapidly. "We trip over meth labs here,"76 says Chuck Phillips, chief investigator of the Jackson County Sheriff's Department. In neighboring Tennessee, there were two meth lab busts in the entire state in 1996. In 2002 there were more than four hundred. The same is true nationwide. The DEA reports an alarming upsurge in labs and lab busts. In 1994 the DEA seized 263 meth labs. By the year 2000, there were 1,815 labs seized, a 590 percent increase. That same year, state and local agencies found another 4,600 labs.

A Day in the Coca Fields

With the help of Colombian president Alvaro Uribe, the U.S. government has enacted a plan to destroy Colombia's coca crops. Steve Nettleton, a correspondent for CNN, visited Colombia to speak to the workers who may soon be affected by this plan. There he met one young family man who is trying to make a living by picking coca leaves.

His callused hands smeared with lime-green resin, Francisco slides his fingers along the stems of coca plants, shearing off the leaves in one fluid motion. He collects the severed leaves on a small tarp and moves to bare the next shrub of its foliage.

Francisco, who offered only his first name, is a raspachín, or "scraper"—the name Colombians give to coca pickers for the rough manner with which they harvest their crop. He is paid by farm owners to process the coca into a milky-white paste, called coca base, which is sold to traffickers to be crystallized into cocaine.

His salary is better than most farm laborers. At 300,000 pesos a month (U.S. $136), he earns enough for himself, though not enough for his entire family. But close exposure to the chemicals and gasoline used to make coca base makes you age faster, he said. And the job comes with a curse.

"The money in this work is evil money," he said. "You get corrupted making money with this, because of what you do with it. A lot of people who work with me have become addicted [to drinking]. They spend all their money on [alcohol]."

Yet, for all the hardships, being a raspachín is the best Francisco can do in these southern jungles of Colombia. He would rather work as a cattle rancher, but he has no land and no money to begin such an enterprise.

For Francisco, like many poor Colombians, life offers few choices. Efforts by the Colombian government to end the production of coca will take away the only job Francisco can get. But Francisco will go on. "This is going to end; it's not going on forever," he said. "[When it does end] I'll do whatever life gives me."

Hooked on Cooking

With the proliferation of meth labs, and of cooks who take their job seriously, a strange "meth chef" culture has arisen. "A lot of people here [love] the cooking aspect—it's almost a social phenomenon among people who do that," says Charles Rhodes, a district attorney in Jackson County, Tennessee. "You find two or three or four people getting together in a house or trailer, they cook some up then move to another house and cook some more. It's like a potluck."77

Barry Kennamer, a former firefighter and family man who is now in prison, loved cooking. For Barry, making meth was almost as exciting as taking it, and he spent hours perfecting his recipe: "You see somebody cook it one time, and it sweeps you off your feet. You take these chemicals, get a big reaction, and that acid smell…. Man, I don't know what it is about cooking, but it can flat take you away."78

What most cooks rarely acknowledge, however, is how dangerous the job is. Of the thirty-two different chemicals that can be used, more than one-third of them are extremely dangerous. Undiluted hydriodic acid, for example, is highly caustic. Red phosphorous, a flammable compound, can be converted to phosphine gas, one of the deadly nerve gases used in World War I. Red phosphorous is also the cause of many of the fires in meth labs. Onequarter of all meth labs catch fire before being discovered.

One method of making meth is favored by many because it is fast, cheap, and requires very little equipment. It involves toxic ingredients like lithium, a component of batteries, and anhydrous ammonia, an ingredient in fertilizer. Some of the other dangerous chemicals that can be used in meth production include iodine, ether, chloroform, drain cleaner, lighter fluid, and propane.

Hazards to Children of Meth Chefs

Because it uses such dangerous chemicals, the production of meth not only takes a toll on the bodies of the meth cooks but impacts a much wider circle of people, such as their children, law enforcement officers, and neighbors. Meth is even bad for the environment.

Children are found during more than half of meth lab busts. The kids of meth cookers live in an environment of toxic chemicals and potentially explosive reactions. Their lungs are exposed to caustic fumes that cause bronchitis and lung infections. Many exist in filthy conditions, often without food, for days on end while their parents are bingeing. It is not unusual for parents to lock their children in a room while they are cooking and using and then forget to let them out. Children who are found during a meth bust are taken into protective custody.

In an interview with journalist Caitlin Rother, one pediatrician relates some of the horrors she has witnessed firsthand. Dr. Wendy Wright, who works with Children's Hospital and the Polinsky Children's Center in San Diego, sees too many kids in dangerous homes. In one dirty shack, she found meth syringes on the floor, bottles of toxic chemicals stored in the refrigerator next to identical containers of soda, and an unsupervised two-year-old roaming the premises. "Not only are children in physical danger," Wright warns, "they are learning how to use meth themselves."79

To make her point, Wright showed a video of five-year-old Sophia, who described how her parents use meth. "They get a piece of foil. They make a little roll," the child said. "They get a lighter and then they light it up…. They save it until they do it again, and they always do it again." When the interviewer asked Sophia to use crayons to show how many times her parents smoked the drug again, she piled all of the crayons in a big stack and looked around for more. "I need more crayons,"80 she said.

In addition, Wright explained that young children can even tell her how to manufacture meth. Sadly, many children learn these skills from family. "If your dad cooks meth in the house, that's what you're going to learn to do,"81 says Lieutenant Mel Williams of the Sioux City, Iowa, police force. Children as young as eight years old have been found working in meth labs.

Other Dangers Posed by Cooking

Just being the neighbor of a meth cook can have negative consequences. In apartment buildings, toxic meth fumes can be carried through an entire building along central heat and air conditioning ducts. Neighbors living in houses next to meth cooks encounter irritating fumes and odors. And when meth cooks move, they rarely clean up the residue from their dangerous chemicals, thus exposing the next renters or home buyers to a variety of toxins. Just lingering where there are fumes can make a person sick.

Cooks have no regard for the environment and dump their waste chemicals wherever convenient. The amount of waste produced by labs is enormous. For every pound of final product, five or six pounds of chemical waste are generated. Hazardous ingredients get poured down drains, where they flow directly into plants that treat wastewater for return to streams or watersheds. In rural areas, cooks often empty hazardous materials right onto the ground, where they can seep into the groundwater. The cost of cleanup at a meth site can be thousands of dollars and put police who discover and dismantle these labs at risk.

The Work Continues

To battle cocaine and meth use, several states have set aside funds for dealing with abuse of stimulants, allocating money for seizing drugs, arresting sellers, treating addicts, and educating the public. In the Midwest, the DEA has created the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program. Its job is to coordinate the efforts of law enforcement to combat methamphetamine activity in North and South Dakota, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, and Nebraska. By pulling together local agencies in those areas, the program makes it difficult for clandestine labs to pull up roots and move to a neighboring state.

Every state law enforcement agency receives federal backup and support in the war against stimulants. To focus attention on the "meth epidemic," Congress instituted the Methamphetamine Interagency Task Force in 1998. It has created a multifaceted approach to the problem that includes the establishment of task forces on the local level, the promotion of education to foster prevention, and improvement in treatment. The task force also provides money, expertise, and technical assistance to communities.

Plans are under development to create an early warning system, an identification of trends in a geographical area that indicate increases in stimulant abuse. Once an area has been identified as high risk, resources can be allocated to it. Plans are also moving forward to create a community resource guide, a set of materials about illegal stimulants that local citizens can use to help them teach the dangers of stimulant use and learn about treatment programs and law enforcement resources. By attacking the problem on all fronts, the United States is learning the most effective methods in stamping out stimulant use.