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.
The meth trail into Texas begins when a Mexican cartel illegally imports ephedrine, pseudoephedrine or other precursor chemicals from Africa, Europe, India or China. State-of-the-art labs then make meth in liquid form.
Smugglers transport their loads across the Texas border in fake gasoline tanks or other containers hidden on cars and trucks. Cartel members on the American side use solvents and other chemicals to convert the liquid into “shards,” or crystal meth. The shards resemble lumps of yellowish ice.
Scott Stewart, vice president for Stratfor, an Austin-based “global intelligence company” that analyzes world events for its clients, says the Dallas-Fort Worth area and its 6.5 million people play an important role in the Mexican meth industry. North Texas is not only a big market; it also functions as a shipment point, where the product is stored and sent to markets across the country.
“If Texas is a dartboard, then Dallas is the bull’s-eye,” Stewart said. “You guys are on the ‘X’ when it comes to smuggling routes.”
DEA agents and Rattan, a federal prosecutor with 15 years’ experience, painted this outline of how Espinoza’s operation worked:
A boss in Guerrero runs several warehouses like the one in Collin County. They might be located in Atlanta, Charlotte, N.C., or Cleveland. Doing business by cellphone, the boss arranges shipments to Espinoza and connects him with customers who want to buy several pounds at a time.
A kilogram, or 2.2 pounds, can cost $20,000. Eventually, it can be cut down into one-gram packets — about a teaspoonful — selling for $100 on the street. Depending on how much street-level dealers dilute the drug, that initial $20,000 could bring in $100,000.
Espinoza made a mistake last March when he began dealing with a confidential informant associated with local police and the DEA, according to court records.
On March 27, DEA agents raided Espinoza’s house. They found four pounds of meth, drug paraphernalia, a pistol, a rifle and equipment used to convert liquid meth into crystal. The house reeked of chemicals.
Equipment used to package the meth was found in the children’s bedroom, along with a stuffed toy that Rattan described as “a teddy bear with a meth enema.”
“You think about why they would expose children to something so dangerous,” she said.
Rattan put Espinoza and an associate, Alfredo Pineda, on trial for drug trafficking. They were convicted and are in jail awaiting sentencing
At the trail’s end
A DEA chemist analyzed the meth confiscated at Espinoza’s house and found it to be 90 percent pure. Drug market experts say that high purity indicates abundant supply: During times of scarcity, dealers dilute their product to stretch it out for sale to more customers.
High-quality meth has profound implications for those who smoke, snort or inject it, because it turns them into addicts quickly. And that means the medical conditions associated with meth use — vitamin deficiency, hair loss, dental problems, damage to the nervous system and to vital organs — descend on them quickly.
Alison Watros, a drug-abuse counselor who runs a halfway house for recovering addicts in North Dallas, has seen a lot of meth addicts struggle to get clean.
Many relapse, she said, because they leave treatment programs too soon.
Windhaven House, Watros’ halfway house, is nestled in a quiet residential neighborhood. If the Mexican superlabs represent the beginning of the meth trail into Texas, Windhaven House sits at trail’s end.
Watros recently convened a group of women, all recovering meth addicts, to discuss their struggles. Each described a journey from ecstasy to misery.
“They take it the first time and spend the rest of the time trying to rediscover the euphoria they once felt,” Watros said.
The addicts said their meth use started out as a many-splendored thing. It helped them lose weight. It turned sadness to happiness, as least for a few hours. It enhanced sex. It gave them added energy to clean house and accomplish more at work. But eventually, they started spending more money to buy more meth, in a futile effort to sustain the blissful high.
“Myra,” 41, said she used meth from 1991 to 1997 and then got clean on her own. In 2008, she started dating a guy who turned out to be a meth user, and she began using again.
“Meth gave me everything I never had: beauty, intelligence, social skills to fit in and be popular,” she said. “It was powerful.”
But it was all a drug-fueled illusion.
Myra knew she had to stop using meth when social workers showed up at her home and took her two children away.
With the help of a 12-step program and extensive counseling, she got her kids back and has been sober for almost two years. But she thinks her meth addiction might have caused lasting health problems.
“I have some tingling in arms and legs and some numbness and twitching, but nothing anyone but me would notice,” she said.
She has this advice for anyone thinking about trying meth:
“It feels so good when you start. But it’s not worth it. It doesn’t last.”
©2012 The Dallas Morning News
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