Smuggled inside gas tanks, under clothes, in food cans
A vehicle goes through an X-Ray machine checking for contraband at the San Ysidro port of entry — CBP
Methamphetamine seizures at U.S. ports of entry on the California-Mexico border reached unprecedented levels in fiscal 2014, as drug trafficking organizations strive to smuggle growing quantities of the low-cost Mexican-made product into the United States.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection figures show 14,732 pounds of meth seized by the San Diego field office during the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, accounting for 63 percent of the synthetic drug seized at all land, air and sea ports of entry nationwide.
With the California border as their main smuggling route, “the Mexican cartels are flooding the U.S. marketplace with their cheap methamphetamine,” said Gary Hill, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s assistant special agent in charge in San Diego.
Undercover agents are purchasing meth in San Diego for $3,500 a pound, versus about $11,800 for a pound of cocaine, Hill said. “We have seen the trend of the price of meth decreasing tremendously since 2008.”
Methamphetamine, a highly addictive synthetic drug, once was primarily produced in the United States, and San Diego was infamous as its manufacturing capital. But with a U.S. law enforcement crackdown on the precursor chemicals used to make meth, the drug is now largely produced in Mexico.
The DEA estimates that 90 percent of the meth consumed in the United States is manufactured in labs south of the border.
Mexican cartels are finding it far less expensive to produce meth in Mexico than importing cocaine from South America, Hill said. “The overhead is tremendous for cocaine,” while for meth, “the overhead is minimal. They oversee the manufacturing. There is no middleman.”
Hill said that production is largely controlled by the Sinaloa cartel and Knights Templar, groups that also control the smuggling routes on the California border, offering a theory as to why such as large proportion of the seizures would be coming through ports of entry such as San Ysidro, Otay and Calexico.
“That’s our supposition,” Hill said. “They control the gateway at San Diego and they seem to be the ones who are most involved in manufacturing the methamphetamine, so it kind of goes hand-in-hand.”
While San Diego has remained a transit center, much of the drug that makes it into the country is headed for distribution hubs farther north, according to Joe Garcia, interim special agent in charge for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Homeland Security Investigations in San Diego.
“Los Angeles has become a huge transshipment point,” Garcia said, with the drug ending up in a wide range of locations. “Our investigations take us through all corners of the country, Atlanta, Chicago, New York, North Carolina, Seattle, San Francisco, Montana. It’s going into Canada as well.”
Garcia dates the upward trend in meth seizures on the California border to 2009. “What we noticed first was an increase in smuggling among teens. Initially it was marijuana, then there was a shift to hard narcotics, where meth was the main hard narcotic being smuggled.”
CBP figures show a 300 percent increase in meth seizures at California ports of entry from fiscal 2009 to 2014.
While marijuana, cocaine and heroin seizures fell in fiscal 2014, meth seizures rose eight percent from fiscal 2013, according to figures released last month.
Much of the product is brought through ports of entry in relatively small quantities, strapped onto the bodies of pedestrian border crossers, carried inside sealed cans of food, hidden inside spare tires and deep inside engine compartments.
A sampling of CBP reports from 2014:
• A 34-year-old Mexican citizen and Tijuana resident was arrested Feb. 8 at Otay Mesa with 132 pounds of liquid methamphetamine concealed in the gas tank of his pickup.
• A 58-year-old female and her 45-year-old male passenger, both U.S. residents, were stopped Feb. 23 at the San Ysidro Port of Entry with two large sealed cans of hominy that were found to contain two seven-pound vacuum-sealed packages of meth.
• A 62-year-old U.S. citizen and Brawley resident who walked into the Calexico downtown port of entry with four wheels of cheese on April 26 was arrested when inspectors found wrapped packages of meth inside the cheese.•
• A 21-year-old U.S. citizen was stopped June 8 while walking across at Calexico with nearly three pounds concealed under her clothing.
• CBP canine teams at the Otay Mesa Commercial Port of Entry on June 12 searched the cabins of three trucks pulling empty trailers and found that their fire extinguishers contained meth and heroin.
“If there were a clear trend, it would be toward the pedestrian body carriers in the last couple of years,” said Bob Hood, the CBP’s assistant director for the San Ysidro Port of Entry. Hood said that smugglers also have been looking for ways to conceal the drugs deeper inside vehicles, within the engine block, inside batteries, within the transmission and muffler. “They’re hiding it in difficult places for us to get to,” he said.
Over the past couple of years, smugglers have also been liquefying the meth and pouring it into gas tanks, containers of windshield wiper fluid, even juice bottles to transport it across the border, converting it back into solid form at conversion labs.
Much of the conversion takes place in the greater Los Angeles area, but in November, DEA agents working with Chula Vista Police and San Diego County HazMat seized close to 100 pounds of meth and meth in solution inside a townhouse off Broadway in Chula Vista.
Across the border in Baja California, authorities have also been reporting confiscations. Last month, the Mexican Attorney General’s Office reported the seizure of more than 780 pounds of crystal meth following a search of a house in Colonia Independencia.
The Tijuana-San Diego corridor has long been a key gateway for drug smugglers. In years past, most seizures involved marijuana, but today “we’re seeing as much if not more meth than marijuana,” said Hood, San Ysidro’s assistant port director.
“We’ve been agile, nimble, responsive to trends,” said Angela Goldberg, coordinator for the Meth Strike Force, an effort by law enforcement and health officials in San Diego County to combat meth. Still, “more use means more consequences. We are seeing a lot of health consequences, such as big increases in meth deaths and emergency room visits, along with public safety consequences, such as more arrests and more people in jail who test positive for meth,” she said. “It’s very hard to get past these drug cartels. They’re very good at what they do.”
The San Diego County Medical Examiner’s Office counted 267 meth-related deaths in 2013, the latest available figures.
Overdoses accounted for 190 of the deaths, while other major causes included 22 motor vehicle accidents, 21 homicides whose victims had the drug in their system, and 23 suicides.
As seizures at the border have risen, so have prosecutions. In 2013, the San Diego District Attorney’s Office had approximately eight cases involving meth seizures at the ports of entry of one kilo or more, said Steve Walter, the assistant chief of narcotics. For 2014, the number of such prosecutions jumped to more than 60, he said.
At the U.S. Attorney’s Office in San Diego, “meth cases continue to represent the largest part of our drug prosecutions,” said spokeswoman Kelly Thornton. “This has been the case for at least the last two or three years.”