By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Tab seems like just the usual delusional, vague longtime meth abuser, but afterward our source vouches for him again. ”Tab acts paranoid, because that‘s what long-term exposure to meth does to you. But he’s the real thing. You just don‘t want to go there, though. You don’t want to follow up and meet his friends. They‘ll kill him, and they’ll kill you.“
The Technical-Support People
Meanwhile, it is a Tuesday night in El Monte. In the front yard of a two-story apartment building, 11 men sit in handcuffs, their backs against the front fence. Agents from the California Department of Justice‘s Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement (BNE) mill about.
None of the detainees speaks English. The youngest says he’s 17, but he doesn‘t know his own date of birth. Like almost everyone arrested in superlab operations, they are from Sinaloa and Michoacan. And like almost everyone who gets arrested, they are medium-to-low-level people in the meth business, what the BNE agents term the ”technical-support people.“ The people who allegedly call the shots are not in this country.
Here in southern L.A. County, it is the job of the technical-support people to gather the precursor chemicals and the glassware needed to make meth -- a huge operation in itself. The main chemicals are red phosphorus, iodine and, of course, ephedrine or pseudoephedrine -- substances that are not illegal in and of themselves, but that can be illegal to possess in quantity. a
So where the U.S. efforts against cocaine and heroin begin with attempts to eradicate coca and poppy fields in Latin America, the BNE’s efforts against meth are directed against the quasilegal precursor chemicals. In the early ‘90s, Mexican cartels were importing pure ephedrine from Germany, the Czech Republic, China and India in 40-gallon tins. ”We’d have huge shipments going to post-office boxes in Mexico,“ explains a DEA agent. ”From there, they‘d just smuggle it across the border.“ So the U.S. State Department pressed for foreign export controls of pure ephedrine. In turn, the cartels switched to using cases of ephedrine tablets, in 1,000-tablet bottles. After the DEA shut down that option, the cartels switched to cases of ephedrine or pseudoephedrine in 24-tablet bottles, allegedly obtained at $1,000 per case, from ”rogue“ chemical supply houses in New Jersey, and from unscrupulous convenience-store owners.
”It takes them too much effort to individually open thousands of 24-tablet bottles,“ says a BNE agent, ”so now a whole cottage industry has grown up just to cut the bottoms off the bottles and extract the ephedrine pills. They’ve even developed their own machinery to do it.“
Yet Another Meth Capital
As meth spreads eastward from California, it seems to spark a kind of perverse civic pride. Just as every tourist inn of a certain age on the eastern seaboard claims that George Washington once slept there, people in many states in the Midwest are quick to tell you that their state is the meth capital of America.
The first Midwestern state to lay claim to the ”meth capital“ claim was Iowa, because meth seems to have followed migrant farmworkers up the interstate out of Los Angeles and on to Iowa farm country. Drug-enforcement agents there show me bags, kilo after kilo, of meth that they intercepted from trucks on the interstate. ”This load here,“ an agent says, ”what happened was that the truck driver had the meth stored by the heater, and the fumes got to him. Made him so paranoid, he thought we were following him. So he turned himself in.“
But according to the DEA, thanks to its efforts to restrict precursor chemicals, the purity of the cartel meth has been declining. In 1995, it was 60 percent. Now it‘s 29 percent. That inspires addicts to make their own, following the formulas from the Internet or Uncle Fester. In Iowa, there were 31 meth mom-and-pop labs seized in ’96. There were 63 in ‘97, and 339 in ’98. It would seem that a large group of people without the ability to create their own dot-com start-up companies have joined the nation‘s entrepreneurial boom by going into the meth business.
Late on a Sunday afternoon in October, while working on the meth documentary, we hit the malls in Des Moines, Iowa. In the food court at the first place we stop, a wild guy in his 20s recognizes my colleague Serena from TV, and hails her loudly. ”This is the meth capital of the United States,“ he tells us, and explains how he once spent 30 days in the hospital because of it. His pupils are pinpoints, and he has the exaggerated movements I’ve come to associate with meth abusers, but he tells us that he has stopped using it and isn‘t on it now.
We get to the second mall just before closing time. Serena chats with a sales clerk who thinks she can help us. She gives us a phone number, which we call. A few minutes later, a fellow named Justin comes by in a pickup truck. He was a longtime user, but has been, for over a year, in recovery. Now he works trying to help other addicts to quit. We follow him over to a shabby one-story frame house in the east part of town. Justin goes inside and comes back out with a cooker, a guy around 40, whose wife and kids are inside the house. After a while, the cooker decides, against his self-interest, to drive with Justin back to our hotel. We interview him in my room. From nervousness or exposure to chemicals, he breathes heavily, like Darth Vader. ”I started doing it just so I wouldn’t have to pay for it. When I saw how much money I could make, I quit my job. I can take $300 and turn it into $2,000 in an afternoon.“ Both Justin and the cooker agree that the police need to do more to stop the problem.