STILLWATER — A group of teenagers play a spirited pickup basketball game at one end of an apartment complex. A mother tries to corral her playful children after an afternoon walk. They don’t want to go inside; there is daylight to burn. Suddenly, a narcotics agent dressed all in black emerges from a black sport utility vehicle with tinted windows. He carries a semi-automatic rifle and wears a bulletproof vest with one word emblazoned on the back: “POLICE.” “Ma’am,” the agent says firmly, “please step inside with the children. Now!” Terrified, the mother herds her children inside. At that moment, there is the thunderous sound of a battering ram crashing against the door of a nearby apartment. Officers from the Payne County Sheriff’s Department, the Stillwater Police Department and the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Control storm into the two-bedroom unit, arrest two suspects and confiscate a one-pot methamphetamine lab. The Feb. 19 bust shows the day-to-day reality experienced by uniformed and undercover law enforcement officials operating on the front lines of the battle against illicit drugs. Many Oklahomans appear indifferent to the problem, but to the agents on the street, it feels like being in a war.
Seedy world“These deals can go bad in a hurry,” the narcotics agent says matter-of-factly at the conclusion of the Stillwater raid. (Undercover agents are not identified in this story for their protection.) This raid was part of a sting operation at three pharmaceutical outlets against people trying to purchase pseudoephedrine for the production of methamphetamine — an activity known as “smurfing.” Pseudoephedrine is an ingredient in some cold medicines. One arrest led to a tip about an operating meth lab. Officers secured a local judge’s signature for a search warrant, mobilized in a secluded area near the apartment complex, and executed the raid. Total time: two hours. The two-day operation netted 20 suspects, four meth labs and a handful of informants to build future cases — small, yet meaningful gains in an otherwise relentless tide of drug activity. In recent months, similar sting operations have yielded impressive numbers. Agents executed 334 arrests in the Tulsa metro area in November; made six arrests on a quiet Thursday night in Chickasha; and hauled in another 90 Tulsa-area suspects on a Sunday in February. “Battling the drug problem is a tough business,” said Brian Surber, a state narcotics agent who specializes in surveillance. “Most of the time, I feel like I’m bailing an entire lake with a coffee cup.” Public apathy isn’t helping. “I believe Oklahomans have masks on,” said Darrel Weaver, director of the state Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Control. “They just don’t want to take their masks off. The bottom line is it affects all Oklahomans.” No county, community, economic or racial class is immune to Oklahoma’s drug problem, Weaver said. “I think it would scare some people to know that sitting in the parking lot of that convenience store, or sitting in that restaurant parking lot, is a drug deal,” Weaver said. “There’s somebody that’s probably got a weapon. It’s a high-stakes game to somebody. You’re out there with your family on a Saturday night, and all you want to do is go in and get a nice steak, but … in the car two doors down from you, they’re doing a drug deal. “It’s out there. It’s a very seedy, seedy world.”
Unintended consequencesThe fight against drug trafficking in Oklahoma has changed in recent years. Mexican drug cartels wield greater influence statewide, partly in response to passage of House Bill 2176 in April 2004. The law limits the amount of pseudoephedrine customers can purchase in a 30-day period, and requires them to produce proper identification such as a driver’s license. Names of buyers, as well as attempted buyers, are entered into an electronic database that drug agents can access instantly over a computer or smartphone. The number of meth labs shut down statewide dropped from 667 in 2003 to 150 in 2007, according to Weaver’s agency. The temporary decline provided an opening to the cartels, which filled the demand by shipping loads of meth into the state from large warehouses — called “fiesta labs” — in Mexico. The development of a simpler “one-pot” manufacturing technique has led to a resurgence of homegrown meth lab activity. The number of seizures jumped to 904 in 2011, the narcotics bureau reported. But the cartels still account for a significant slice of the meth trade in Oklahoma.
Criminals adapt“Before, whenever we were dealing with the cartels, we were dealing with close-knit, Spanish-speaking groups that were really hard to infiltrate because they had very tight associations,” said Sarah, a 39-year-old undercover state agent and former state social worker. “They were almost always Mexican. Now, with all the chaos and spread of violence in Mexico, the cartels are dealing with everyone — white, black, Mexican, Middle Eastern. It doesn’t matter anymore.” Drug agents can use these new associations to their advantage. During one typical sting operation, Mike posed as an informant’s cousin to secure a meeting with a drug dealer. One man escorted him into an apartment to negotiate a deal. Once inside, the door was locked and he stood before three armed suspects. “I told them I needed to go to the car to get the money,” Mike recalled. “That’s how I got out of there, and that’s when we executed the arrests. But my backup felt like a long way away even though they weren’t. “Oklahomans need to realize these people — and these drugs — are in every community.” Memories of Sarah’s first drug raid keep her guarded. “I remember seeing a veteran colleague of mine throw a suspect to the ground, and jump on top of him rather roughly — excessively, I thought,” Sarah said. “The suspect was Mexican, and I started to think I was witnessing police brutality. I mean the suspect was already on the ground. Just then, the suspect’s arm flung free and a gun fell out in front of us. That’s when I realized I was being naive. “Make no mistake. We are fighting a war out there.”