National Drug Intelligence
Methamphetamine and marijuana are produced in the CVC HIDTA in quantities sufficient to supply the numerous regional and national-level drug markets. Most of the marijuana and methamphetamine available in the region is produced by Mexican DTOs; nonetheless, Asian (primarily Vietnamese and, to a lesser extent, Hmong and Laotian) criminal groups in the region have increased their position over the last year with regard to indoor marijuana production.
Large-scale methamphetamine production in the CVC HIDTA is increasing. Strong pseudoephedrine import restrictions and law enforcement pressure in Mexico have contributed to a decrease in Mexican methamphetamine production, the primary source of the drug in the Central Valley HIDTA area. Because of the difficulty in obtaining sufficient supplies of pseudoephedrine in Mexico, central and southern California law enforcement and intelligence officials report that some Mexican DTOs are relocating their production operations to California. Intelligence reporting indicates that these DTOs are fueling their relocated production operations with ephedrine and pseudoephedrine acquired through large-scale smurfing operations in southern and central California (see text box). Individuals and Hispanic street gangs in the Central Valley HIDTA region often organize these smurfing operations and then sell the precursor chemicals to methamphetamine producers. In fact, the HIDTA reports that the methamphetamine laboratories seized in its area are producing methamphetamine with ephedrine and pseudoephedrine acquired primarily through smurfing. Moreover, Fresno Methamphetamine Task Force (FMTF) reporting indicates that its officers have seized gallon-size plastic freezer bags of pseudoephedrine tablets that were collected during smurfing operations based in central and southern California and have encountered similar bags with residue from pseudoephedrine tablets at laboratory dumpsites throughout their jurisdiction.
Ephedrine and Pseudoephedrine Smurfing
Ephedrine and pseudoephedrine smurfing is a method used by some methamphetamine traffickers to acquire large quantities of precursor chemicals. Methamphetamine producers purchase the chemicals in quantities at or below legal thresholds from multiple retail locations. Methamphetamine producers often enlist the assistance of several friends or associates in smurfing operations to increase the speed of the operation and the quantity of chemicals acquired. For instance, an October 2007 investigation in Fresno County revealed that a couple conducted daily precursor chemical smurfing operations, soliciting homeless individuals to get into their car and ride from store to store to purchase pseudoephedrine. In exchange, the couple paid each person approximately $30 and sometimes gave the individuals alcohol. Evidence seized from the couple's vehicle included packages of pseudoephedrine, pharmacy listings torn from an area telephone directory, and several cellular telephones. Furthermore, a smurfing operation infiltrated in Fresno in April 2008 yielded evidence including a handwritten price list, store receipts, pseudoephedrine packaging, paper shredders and blister packs that had been removed from their paper packaging and placed into plastic shopping bags in 24-gram increments for sale to brokers. The price list indicated that each 3.6-gram box of pseudoephedrine-type product was to be sold for no less than $32. According to FMTF reporting, much of the pseudoephedrine evidence discovered at superlabs and dumpsites in their jurisdiction can be directly traced to smurfing operations, and of those, most are traceable back to smurfing operations based in southern California, particularly San Diego County.
Law enforcement and intelligence reporting indicates that, unlike in previous years, large-scale methamphetamine producers in the Central Valley HIDTA are using hypophosphorous acid as the primary reagent in their pseudoephedrine reduction operations instead of red phosphorus. Law enforcement and intelligence reporting indicates that hypophosphorous acid (a clear liquid), is easier to smuggle than red phosphorus (a crimson powder), because hypophosphorous acid can easily be mistaken for water or other liquids, and law enforcement pressure on red phosphorus smugglers as well as restrictions on the sale and distribution of red phosphorus have made the chemical difficult to obtain. The increased use of hypophosphorous acid is evidenced by increased seizures of 5-gallon plastic gas cans filled with hypophosphorous acid at superlabs and dumpsites in the region. Most large-scale production operations are located in very rural areas, typically on rented property, particularly farms, for an extended period. The operators produce methamphetamine continuously until they believe the location is no longer secure. To evade law enforcement detection methamphetamine producers typically burn, shred, or bury the waste from their laboratory sites because they are aware that investigators examine material at dumpsites to identify operators and the locations of their laboratories. For example, in February 2008, agents from the FMTF seized a superlab in Madera, California, that was linked to 30 large dumpsites located throughout the region that had been discovered between August 2007 and February 2008. FMTF agents located specific apparatus and materials at each dumpsite that enabled them to identify multiple suspects and seize the superlab and 370 grams of methamphetamine. The superlab consisted of laboratory equipment and glassware (including a 22-liter reaction vessel), trash bags full of empty tablet blister packs from various pseudoephedrine products, and 50 pounds of pseudoephedrine The laboratory could have yielded up to 40 pounds of methamphetamine valued at $800,000.
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According to the California Department of Toxic Substances Control, methamphetamine laboratory cleanup costs in the CVC HIDTA counties reached $384,302, accounting for approximately 45 percent of the $845,340 spent by the state of California to remediate methamphetamine laboratories and dumpsites in 2007. By June 2008 the number of laboratories and dumpsites seized in the CVC HIDTA had reached 18 and 80 respectively, with cleanup costs totaling $257,097--a pace that would exceed cleanup costs in 2007. (See Table 1.)
Table 1. Methamphetamine Laboratory and Dumpsite Seizures and Cleanup Costs, by HIDTA County, Compared With State, 2006-2008*
|HIDTA County||Laboratories||Dumpsites||Total Cleanup Cost||Laboratories||Dumpsites||Total Cleanup Cost||Laboratories||Dumpsites||Total Cleanup Cost|
|Average cost per laboratory and dumpsite||$2,021||$2,044||$2,623|
|HIDTA Percentage of State||26%||74%||47%||23%||79%||45%||24%||91%||56%|
Source: California Department of Toxic Substance Control.
* Through June 6, 2008.
Indoor and outdoor cannabis cultivation is prevalent and increasing throughout the CVC HIDTA region. According to law enforcement officials, Mexican DTOs are the leading growers of outdoor cannabis, and represent the primary organizational threat with regard to marijuana in the region. Asian organizations also maintain some outdoor marijuana grow sites in the region but on a much smaller scale than Mexican DTOs. Law enforcement reporting indicates that indoor cannabis cultivation in the region has increased significantly over the past year primarily because of increased cultivation by Canada-based Asian DTOs. Additionally, law enforcement and intelligence reporting indicates an increase in local Caucasian growers relocating their cannabis grow operations indoors to avoid intensified outdoor eradication efforts and reap higher profits through year-round production of indoor-grown, high-potency marijuana.
According to Central Valley Marijuana Investigative Team (CVMIT) reporting, Mexican DTOs cultivate cannabis in the Central Valley HIDTA region primarily in remote areas of public lands, at sites that average between 5,000 and 7,000 cannabis plants. In 2007, law enforcement officials in the Central Valley HIDTA reported that outdoor cannabis cultivators, primarily Mexican DTOs, were changing their cultivation process from one crop to two crops with shortened growing cycles-per year. Cultivators achieve two crops by planting specific strains of cannabis that mature faster or by planting seedlings earlier in the spring. For example, some cultivators are planting cannabis that buds earlier than most varieties and matures as early as June. Cannabis that is cultivated in the spring is harvested in early July and the plot is replanted, allowing for an additional harvest in September or October. Furthermore, law enforcement officials report that cultivators are harvesting as many plants as practical, including marginally mature plants, immediately prior to the height of the eradication season or before eradication efforts move into the area, in order to avoid the risk of eradication for an entire crop. Additionally, cultivators increasingly are hiding their plots by planting the cannabis among indigenous plants, such as manzanita,2 to avoid aerial detection.
Indoor Grow Sites
Indoor cannabis cultivation sites range in size from a single closet to entire houses or buildings that are converted into complex grow operations. Indoor cannabis cultivators frequently use advanced growing techniques like plant cloning and automated light metering, irrigation, fertilization, and insecticides to enhance plant growth rates. According to the CVMIT, the controlled environment of indoor grows also affords growers the potential for a year-round cultivation season, producing a new marijuana crop every 90 days.
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Over the past year, Asian DTOs and criminal groups in the Central Valley HIDTA region have increased their indoor cannabis cultivation operations, and many of these groups are linked to other Asian groups operating in the West Central and Southeast Regions. Recent law enforcement reporting indicates that these groups often operate several sites throughout the region, working in coordination with associates in cities within and outside the region to facilitate growing operations. Law enforcement investigations in the region in 2007 revealed that many of these organizations were linked to organizations operating in other regions of the country, including the Southwest, Pacific, West Central, and Florida/Caribbean Regions.
While most cannabis cultivation by Asian traffickers occurs indoors, some Asian criminal groups, primarily Hmong criminal groups, cultivate cannabis outdoors in the region, typically in agricultural areas. These groups employ individuals who work in the local agricultural industry to cultivate the plants on behalf of the criminal group. Asian criminal groups' cannabis grows are often interspersed among legitimate crops like bitter melon, strawberries, and grapes; because the cannabis plants are spread among the other foliage they are difficult to differentiate from the legitimate crops.
In 2007, the Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Suppression Program (DCE/SP) reported the eradication of 776,218 cannabis plants in the CVC HIDTA, accounting for 16 percent of all cannabis plants seized in California, and a sharp increase from 251,841 plants seized in the region in 2006. Most (85%) of the cannabis plants seized by DCE/SP in the Central Valley HIDTA were eradicated from grow sites located in Tulare (330,986), Fresno (184,063), and Kern (147,584) Counties. (See Figure 2.)
Figure 2. Central Valley California HIDTA cannabis eradication sites.
Source: DEA, San Francisco Field Division, DCE/SP, and California's Campaign Against Marijuana Planting.
Crack distributors throughout the Central Valley HIDTA region frequently convert powder cocaine to crack; however, crack conversion is a much lower concern to law enforcement and drug treatment providers in the region compared with the threat posed by methamphetamine and marijuana.
Mexican DTOs based in the Central Valley HIDTA region conduct regional- and national-level transshipment and distribution of illicit drugs from the region, supplying drug distributors in every region of the country. These organizations regularly transport wholesale quantities of ice methamphetamine, cocaine, marijuana, and black tar heroin into the area from source areas in Mexico, primarily using I-5, in private and commercial vehicles. Although a large portion of these drugs remain in the area for local distribution, many of the drug shipments from Mexico--as well as methamphetamine and marijuana produced within the HIDTA--are transported in private and commercial vehicles to drug markets in Great Lakes, Mid-Atlantic, New York, New Jersey, Southeast, Southwest, and West Central Regions of the country.
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