It was almost like a game of Whac-A-Mole: As soon as the federal government enacted laws to hammer domestic producers of methamphetamine, Mexican drug dealers started popping up in Texas to take their place.
Now, the powerful stimulant commonly known as meth has become the biggest drug problem in North Texas, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
“It blows me away every day, the amount of meth we see,” said Dan Salter, assistant special agent in charge of the DEA’s Dallas office. “The appetite for this drug is strong.”
Julian Espinoza, 28, was among those who helped feed the appetite. He was an illegal immigrant and a low-level operative for a drug gang based in the state of Guerrero, on the west coast of Mexico, according to federal court records. Chances are good that Espinoza, like most people, had never heard of the Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act of 2005 when he set up a meth warehouse in a quiet, rural corner of Collin County.
Federal drug agents took down his operation last March. They say he and myriad others like him represent the law of unintended consequences: A decade-long American effort to stamp out meth by controlling the domestic availability of precursor chemicals — ephedrine, pseudoephedrine and others — actually created a new business opportunity for the drug cartels south of the border.
The 2005 act, for example, required American pharmacists to collect the names and driver’s license numbers of customers buying cold pills containing ephedrine or pseudoephedrine. The idea was to deter meth cookers from buying hundreds of cold pills at a time and converting the active ingredients into meth.
Jane C. Maxwell, a University of Texas researcher who’s spent 40 years studying the illegal drug market, said the meth problem appeared to subside in 2006 and 2007 — until Mexican cartels discovered an underserved market.
“The cartels were already involved in meth,” Maxwell said. “But the unintended consequence of the law was that they decided to get into it in a big way.”
Hitting the ‘smurfers’
Mexican authorities, following the lead of their American counterparts, tried to shut down the cartels’ access to precursor chemicals, but they haven’t been successful, judging by the number of clandestine meth labs springing up throughout the country.
In 2009, the Mexican government reported dismantling 191 meth labs — up from 21 in 2008, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. The upward trend continued into 2010.
The amount of meth intercepted at the U.S. border with Mexico more than doubled, to 7.3 tons, between 2009 and 2011, according to the DEA. Last February, Mexican police discovered an astounding 15 tons of meth at a clandestine superlab on a ranch near Guadalajara.
Meth seizures in the Dallas division of the DEA, which includes North Texas and parts of West Texas and East Texas, rose from 196.5 kilograms in 2007 to 574 kilograms this year.
A 2011 analysis of the drug market in North Texas produced by the U.S. Department of Justice was unequivocal in its assessment.
“Methamphetamine continues as the primary drug threat to the region due to its persistent availability and abuse,” it said.
The market analysis included a survey which concluded that local, state and federal law enforcement agencies believe meth is associated with more property crime and violent crime than any other drug — by far.
Federal prosecutors are still bringing cases against the mostly Anglo meth cookers in Tyler, Marshall, Longview, Nacogdoches and other smaller Texas communities. Known in law enforcement circles as “smurfers,” these low-echelon producers travel from town to town, buying cold pills at several pharmacies to avoid detection. Then, typically, they cook up a batch of meth for themselves and their friends.
Law enforcement agencies, using databases of pharmacy records, track these purchases, arrest the smurfers, and regularly send them to prison for conspiracy to manufacture meth. But the smurfers are small potatoes. It’s the big-city investigations of Mexican cartels that generate the important cases.
Fitting a pattern
Julian Espinoza and his wife, Oralia Villanueva, moved into a little green house in a sparsely populated corner of Collin County in June 2011. They occupied one bedroom. Their two small children took another bedroom. The rent was $670 a month.
The location seemed perfect. Rolling fields separated them from nosy neighbors, and the lack of city lights shrouded their activities at night.
Espinoza and Villanueva did not use drugs. Meth was strictly a business to them, producing more income than two uneducated peasants could ever earn in Guerrero.
They fit a pattern that federal officials see time and again.
“They try to look like a normal family coming and going,” said Heather Rattan, a federal prosecutor based in Plano. “That is the typical cover for people like them who are operating what, in effect, is a warehouse.”
Court records show that Espinoza and Villanueva were in the U.S. illegally. He had already served time for marijuana trafficking and been deported to Mexico. He snuck back into the U.S. to set up the Collin County warehouse.