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California Central District Drug Threat Assessment
The production, availability, and use of methamphetamine are significant threats to the Central District. Methamphetamine use in the district remains at high levels. From 1997 to 1999, the price and amount of methamphetamine seized in the Central District of California increased. Although the purity levels of methamphetamine significantly decreased over the same period, recent reports indicate purity levels are slowly rising.
The Riverside and San Bernardino County area is referred to as the "methamphetamine capital of the United States." The Central District is classified as a major source because of the numerous methamphetamine laboratories located in the district. These laboratories range from superlabs capable of producing 10 pounds of finished product per cook to numerous small-scale laboratories yielding only nominal user quantities. Most of the superlabs in the area are operated by Mexican DTOs. In response to increased law enforcement pressure, some larger methamphetamine operations are being relocated to areas outside the district.
Mexican DTOs also use the district as both a destination and transshipment point for methamphetamine produced in Mexico and smuggled into the United States. Mexican DTOs and criminal groups control methamphetamine wholesale and retail distribution, sometimes using street gangs and other street level dealers.
Crystal methamphetamine (ice) is available in the region. Ice is a purer, more potent form of the drug with purity levels estimated between 85 and almost 100 percent. Mexican DTOs supply powdered methamphetamine to Asian criminal groups who convert it to ice. These Asian groups dominate the sale of ice, which sells for up to $30,000 per pound.
Seizures of Southeast Asian methamphetamine tablets ("yaba") in California and the availability of those tablets at Southern California nightclubs suggest that the use of Asian methamphetamine tablets may have already spread beyond traditional ethnic Asian users. Yaba (Thai for "crazy medicine") are methamphetamine powdered tablets manufactured in Thailand and Myanmar (Burma).
Law enforcement continues to dedicate a significant amount of resources to the methamphetamine threat. Methamphetamine incidents accounted for 41 percent (6,212) of drug-related law enforcement actions in the Los Angeles HIDTA's area of responsibility in FY1999. This represents a 23 percent increase over FY1998. Most methamphetamine-related law enforcement efforts were directed at laboratory operations.
Methamphetamine is an odorless, bitter-tasting, crystalline powder that dissolves easily in water. Common names are speed, ice, meth, crystal, crank, fire, and glass. It is a man-made, addictive stimulant-hallucinogenic compound, which associates the properties of cocaine with those of LSD. Methamphetamine excites specific brain systems and has a high potential for abuse and dependence. Its use releases high amounts of dopamine, a neurotransmitter, which stimulates the brain and enhances mood and body movement. Methamphetamine can cause arrhythmia and ventricular fibrillation similar to symptoms experienced during a heart attack. It can cause weight loss and increases the risk of blood clots, stroke, and hyperthermia.
In the Central District, methamphetamine use remains high, but data from CADDS indicate that use may be stabilizing. According to CADDS, between FY1994 and FY1997, the number of amphetamine/methamphetamine admissions to treatment facilities fluctuated between 8,627 and 10,764. After a change in drug terminology, methamphetamine treatment admissions continued to fluctuate between FY1998 and FY2000. (See Table 2.)
DAWN statistics for the Los Angeles-Long Beach area show a downward trend in methamphetamine abuse. The estimated number of ED mentions decreased 35 percent from 1,400 in 1994 to 910 in 1999. In contrast, ADAM reports increases in the percentage of male and female arrestees testing positive for methamphetamine: male arrestees testing positive increased from 5 percent in 1997 to 9 percent in 1999; female arrestees testing positive for methamphetamine increased from 9 percent in 1997 to 12 percent in 1999.
The U.S. Attorney for the Central District suggests that methamphetamine may soon surpass cocaine as the most readily available drug in the district. In Los Angeles, the average purity of exhibits analyzed decreased significantly from 66 percent in FY1997 to 44 percent in FY1999. This decrease may have been attributed to the inability of producers to obtain pseudoephedrine, the primary precursor chemical in methamphetamine production. In FY2000, the average purity of exhibits analyzed rebounded slightly to 52 percent. Although the purity of methamphetamine has decreased, its price has increased. The wholesale price rose from 1998 ($3,800-$4,000 per lb) to 1999 ($5,000-$6,000 per lb).
In Los Angeles, the amount of methamphetamine seized rose 158 percent, from 1,077 pounds in 1997 to 2,598 pounds in 1998. As of August 1999, the Los Angeles Police Department had seized approximately 719 pounds of methamphetamine, on pace for slightly lower year-end totals. The amount of methamphetamine seized in the Los Angeles HIDTA increased more than 668 percent over the same period, from 1,656 pounds in FY1997 to 12,729 pounds in FY1999.
The USCS collected data on methamphetamine seizures occurring at various ports within the Central District for FY1998 and FY1999. Similar to the upward trend for methamphetamine seizures in the Los Angeles HIDTA, amounts seized by the USCS increased 92 percent between FY1998 and FY1999. From 1998 to 1999, seizure totals at the Port of Los Angeles more than doubled, and seizures increased at airports in the district. (See Table 3.)
Highly organized Asian criminal organizations and gangs dominate the sale of ice in the Los Angeles area. Japanese and Korean ice traffickers use Chinese-manufactured precursor chemicals to produce the drug and then distribute it. These Asian traffickers also distribute the drug in Guam and Hawaii.
Although Mexican criminal groups operate only a small percentage of all the laboratories in the area, they produce an estimated 95 percent of all methamphetamine available in the district. The absolute control of large-scale production and distribution by these Mexican groups reduces the likelihood of violence. However, rivalry at the retail level among Hispanic gangs creates the potential for isolated hostilities. For example, the Mexican Mafia was violently opposed by several gangs as it attempted to organize and control retail drug distribution. However, it should be noted that turf control, rather than drug operations, motivates most gang violence in Los Angeles. The small-scale individual methamphetamine producers have little reason to provoke violence because most of their methamphetamine is produced for personal consumption.
Methamphetamine addicts suffering the effects of prolonged or chronic abuse often display paranoia, memory loss, aggression, mood disturbances, and a tendency toward violence. Abuse and production of the drug have a negative impact on society. As a result of the proliferation of methamphetamine laboratories--especially home laboratories--law enforcement personnel and civilians, particularly children, are exposed to the dangers of explosion, toxic chemicals, and lethal by-products of the production process. In 1999, 548 children were residing at homes in the Los Angeles area in which methamphetamine laboratories were located. Mental health agencies also warn that methamphetamine abuse can be directly associated with spousal and child abuse, domestic violence, and homicide.
The U.S. Attorney for the Central District indicates that domestic methamphetamine laboratories pose the greatest drug threat to the district. Within the district, methamphetamine is produced in large- and small-scale laboratories. Mexican DTOs dominate large-scale production. The high possibility of explosion, fire, toxic fumes, and ground or water contamination render all methamphetamine laboratories a very serious threat to public safety and the environment.
Superlabs in the district are capable of producing in excess of 10 pounds of finished methamphetamine per cook. In these superlabs, production only takes 2 days to complete. These laboratories are controlled predominantly by Mexican DTOs and often are located in rural areas outside Riverside and San Bernardino. Mexican DTOs control large-scale operations in Orange County and dominate all drug trafficking activities in this area. Superlabs also are located just across the border in Mexico, and the methamphetamine produced at these locations is transported into the district via land routes.
In June 2000, a superlab in Riverside County was discovered in a rural area 3 miles west of Perris. Nearly 400 pounds of methamphetamine were seized, making it one of the county's largest laboratory seizures during the year. The methamphetamine was in powder, paste, and liquid forms. The operation, considered complex, produced large amounts of methamphetamine destined for distribution in the eastern United States. The cost for cleaning up ground contamination from residual chemical by-products released at this laboratory site was estimated at $60,000. Mexican criminals were suspected of operating the laboratory.
The Los Angeles HIDTA reports the existence of smaller laboratories, often referred to as "stovetop laboratories," that produce only nominal user quantities. These laboratories can be set up with minimal equipment anywhere a heating source exists; building and operating one of these small laboratories require only a fundamental knowledge of chemistry. "Dirt lab" production is another trend reported in the district. Hardcore drug users process the dirt and the dumped or spilled finished product found at abandoned methamphetamine laboratories to extract the chemicals needed to produce methamphetamine.
Local police departments report that the number of methamphetamine laboratories continues to increase; they classify methamphetamine as the drug posing the greatest threat to safety and security within their respective jurisdictions. The chemicals used to produce methamphetamine are extremely flammable and toxic. Frequently, these laboratories explode, catch fire, or release poisonous gas requiring specially trained personnel to remove the laboratory and clean up the site. Every pound of methamphetamine produced yields up to 5 pounds of toxic waste. This waste often is dumped into waterways or sewage systems. In 1999, the state of California spent almost half of its budget for remediation of laboratory sites to decontaminate areas in the Central District.
Another problem facing the Central District is the trafficking of precursor and essential chemicals. Mexican DTOs safeguard precursor chemical acquisition in much the same way that they safeguard other facets of their drug operations. Some of the precursor chemicals used in the production of methamphetamine include pseudoephedrine, red phosphorus, fluorocarbons, and iodine. Producers also frequently use dietary supplements DMSO (dimethylsulfone) and MSM (methylsulfonylmethane) to cut the finished product.
Federal and state regulations make the purchase of precursor and essential chemicals within the United States increasingly difficult, forcing Mexican DTOs to obtain precursors from other countries. Many precursors for methamphetamine production are smuggled from Mexico but Mexico is now believed to be a secondary source of supply. The major source countries for ephedrine and pseudoephedrine are China, India, Poland, and Germany.
In addition to the tightening supply of methamphetamine precursor chemicals, stringent regulation of these chemicals resulted in increased prices on the black market. One such example is iodine, which costs about $1,995 per 50 kilograms on the open market compared to the black market price of $9,000 to $9,500. The most recent prices reported by the Narcotic Information Network (NIN) in San Diego are shown in Table 4.
Table 4. Precursor and Essential Chemical Prices,
Source: San Diego/Imperial County Regional Narcotic Information Network and DEA San Diego Field Division.
Since large quantities of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine are not readily available in the area, methamphetamine producers and precursor "brokers" are forced to purchase products containing ephedrine or pseudoephedrine over the counter elsewhere, smuggle the chemicals into the region from Mexico, or obtain them from unscrupulous chemical companies. These criminal broker organizations may also extract the ephedrine or pseudoephedrine from combination products such as cold medicines.
In Operation Mountain Express, DEA agents arrested several people in a network shipping multiton quantities of pseudoephedrine tablets to California. The operation resulted in the seizure of $8 million, 10 metric tons of pseudoephedrine tablets (capable of producing as much as 8.2 metric tons of methamphetamine), 83 pounds of methamphetamine, and 136 pounds of chemical solvents and reagents.
The DEA and Los Angeles HIDTA report that Mexican criminals are attempting to relocate their methamphetamine laboratories to northern California, Mexico, or western Arizona because of law enforcement pressure in the district. This trend is supported by increasing Operation Pipeline stops in northern California and decreasing seizures of large capacity laboratories in Riverside and San Bernardino Counties.
The Central District is a transshipment point for methamphetamine produced in the district and Mexico. The drug is shipped to a number of other states including Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, and New Jersey. Just across the border in Mexico, Mexican criminals produce methamphetamine in large-scale laboratories and transport the drug over the same land routes mentioned in the Cocaine section of this report. These principal smuggling routes include Interstates 5, 10, 15, 40, and 405. Traffickers use personal couriers traveling on commercial airlines to move methamphetamine throughout the United States.
A variety of conveyances and concealment methods are used to smuggle methamphetamine into the United States. The most popular places of concealment in commercial and private vehicles include hidden compartments, air bag compartments, quarter panels, and gas tanks. USCS seized 21 pounds of methamphetamine concealed inside an air bag compartment and a front seat cushion of one car, 25 pounds concealed behind the rear seat of another, and 27 pounds from the gas tank of a pickup truck.
In addition to private and commercial vehicles, drug traffickers use mail and package delivery services to move methamphetamine into the district. DTOs use these methods to move precursor chemicals into the Central District. One organization in particular ships pseudoephedrine from various states into Los Angeles, where it is placed in storage facilities to await distribution to various laboratory operators.
Mexican DTOs and Mexican criminal groups control the sale and distribution of methamphetamine at all levels. Asian criminal organizations dominate the distribution of ice in the Los Angeles area. Hispanic gangs are the primary methamphetamine distributors at the retail level. Small-scale methamphetamine laboratory operators encountered in the district typically produce only enough methamphetamine for personal use and for a limited number of buyers.
Mexican DTOs are the primary sources of supply for methamphetamine in the district and dominate distribution at the wholesale level. According to a 1998 U.S. Attorney report, Mexican DTOs dominate wholesale methamphetamine trafficking in the United States because they have ready access to precursor chemicals in Mexico, they control well-established drug smuggling and distribution networks, and they produce large quantities of methamphetamine on a regular basis.
The FBI identified the Amezcua-Contreras organization as the most significant Mexican methamphetamine trafficking organization. Several key members of the Amezcua-Contreras organization reside and conduct business in the Riverside area. While there is evidence of a renewed interest in methamphetamine production by OMGs, Mexican DTOs and criminal groups are expected to continue to dominate methamphetamine production and distribution at all levels.
Highly organized Asian criminal organizations and gangs dominate the sale of ice in the Los Angeles area. Mexican traffickers supply Asian criminal organizations with powdered methamphetamine for the purpose of converting it to ice. The DEA attributes this trend to the Asian organizations' ability to produce high purity ice in large volumes.
Ice is smuggled into the United States in amounts up to 1 kilogram using express mail services and body carriers. The price of ice in the Los Angeles area ranges between $140 and $450 per gram, $5,000 and $8,500 per ounce, and $50,000 and $70,000 per kilogram. Analyzed samples of ice identified as d-methamphetamine hydrochloride revealed purity levels ranging from 85 to almost 100 percent. An increase in the availability of ice was also noted in Riverside County.
The increasing number of smaller independent methamphetamine laboratories and renewed interest by OMGs in producing their own finished product prevented total West Coast market dominance by Mexican DTOs. However, Mexican DTOs continue to dominate the methamphetamine trade because of their production and smuggling capabilities and their ties to Hispanic gangs, now the primary distributors at the retail level. The Mexican Mafia is expanding its influence over the street distribution of drugs, especially methamphetamine. There are indications that the gang is attempting to organize and orchestrate methamphetamine distribution by area gangs. Some other gangs selling methamphetamine in the district include Mac Mafia Crips, Playa Larga, Sons of Samoa, and East Side Longos in Long Beach and the Big Stanton, Varrio Chicos, and Varrio Mondena Locos in Orange County.
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