National Drug Intelligence Center
Illicit drug production in the Gulf Coast HIDTA region consists of small-scale methamphetamine production, outdoor and indoor cannabis cultivation, and crack cocaine conversion. Small-scale methamphetamine production and cannabis cultivation often take place in rural areas of the region. Crack cocaine conversion takes place principally in urban areas of the region.
Caucasian DTOs, criminal groups, and independent dealers operate small-scale powder methamphetamine laboratories in the Gulf Coast HIDTA region. Law enforcement officials report low to moderate levels of methamphetamine production throughout most of the region. Methamphetamine laboratory seizure data suggest that methamphetamine production in the region is increasing after declining for the past several years. The number of reported methamphetamine laboratory seizures in the region decreased each year from 2004 through 2007; however, 2008 data indicate that methamphetamine production is increasing. According to National Seizure System (NSS) data, the number of reported methamphetamine laboratories seized in the Gulf Coast HIDTA region increased from 114 in 2007 to 195 in 2008. (See Table 2.) The increase in methamphetamine production has been accomplished largely by individuals and criminal groups that circumvent pseudoephedrine sales restrictions by making numerous small-quantity purchases of products containing pseudoephedrine (this method of acquiring pseudoephedrine is often referred to as "smurfing") and by using the one-pot cook method, sometimes called the "shake and bake" method.4 (See text box.) Most methamphetamine laboratories seized in the region used pseudoephedrine and the iodine/red phosphorus or anhydrous ammonia methods of production.
Table 2. Methamphetamine Laboratories Seized in Gulf Coast HIDTA Counties, 2004-2008
Source: National Seizure System, data run on March, 16, 2009.
One-Pot, or Shake and Bake, Methamphetamine Production
A one-pot cook is actually a variation of the anhydrous ammonia method of production; however, in the one-pot method, cooks use a combination of commonly available chemicals to synthesize the anhydrous ammonia essential for methamphetamine production. In doing so, they are able to produce the drug in approximately 30 minutes at nearly any location by mixing ingredients in easily found containers, such as a 2-liter plastic soda bottle, as opposed to using other methods that require hours to heat ingredients on a stove, a process that could result in toxic fumes, primarily from the anhydrous ammonia. Producers often use the one-pot cook while traveling in vehicles and dispose of waste components along roadsides. Discarded plastic bottles may carry residual chemicals that can be toxic, explosive, or flammable.
Caucasian DTOs, criminal groups, and independent growers are the primary cannabis cultivators in the Gulf Coast HIDTA region; most grow sites are located outdoors because of the region's temperate climate. According to Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Suppression Program (DCE/SP) data, 59,380 cannabis plants were eradicated from outdoor grow sites, and 2,518 plants were eradicated from indoor sites in Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi in 2008.5 Over 95 percent of the cannabis plants eradicated from outdoor grow sites in 2008 were eradicated in Alabama and Arkansas. (See Table 3.)
Table 3. Cannabis Plants Eradicated at Outdoor and Indoor Grow Sites in Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi, 2004-2008
Source: Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Suppression Program.
Indoor cannabis cultivation takes place at low levels throughout the Gulf Coast HIDTA region. The number of indoor plants eradicated from grow operations in Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi decreased overall from 2004 through 2008. (See Table 3.) Law enforcement officers report that some marijuana producers prefer to cultivate cannabis indoors to avoid law enforcement detection and to increase the quality of the marijuana produced. The controlled environment, combined with sophisticated growing techniques such as hydroponics, typically yields high-potency marijuana. Moreover, indoor cannabis operations can be conducted year-round, yielding four to six harvests per year, compared with the two harvests per year that are typical for outdoor cultivation. In October 2008 law enforcement officers in Jefferson County, Alabama, seized more than 500 cannabis plants and over $75,000 in what was reported to be the largest indoor cannabis grow site seized in the state's history. The grow site was secreted in a warehouse located in a Birmingham (Jefferson County) suburb. The elaborate operation used separate rooms for mother plants, seedlings, full-grown plants, and drying leaves.
Retail-level crack cocaine distributors, generally African American criminal groups and street gangs, convert powder cocaine to crack at various locations, including crack houses and stash houses, predominantly in urban areas. After converting the powder cocaine to crack, distributors typically break the crack into small pieces, or rocks, and sell it in the neighborhoods where it was produced. Moreover, many crack cocaine distributors are selling loose rocks of crack without packaging; law enforcement officials report that the absence of packaging most likely indicates that the drug was recently converted.
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The Gulf Coast HIDTA region has a highly developed transportation infrastructure composed of highways, such as Interstates 10, 20, and 40, that link it to drug sources along the Southwest Border and to eastern U.S. drug markets such as Atlanta. (See Figure 2.) DTOs routinely exploit this infrastructure to transport illicit drugs into and through the region. Traffickers most commonly use private and commercial vehicles to transport illicit drugs into and through the region along primary roadways; they also transport drug proceeds back to source areas, using the same conveyances and routes. Consequently, the Gulf Coast HIDTA region is the primary transit area used by Mexican DTOs to transport illicit drugs overland from sources of supply in Mexico, Arizona, California, and Texas to Atlanta and other areas in the southeast such as Tennessee and North Carolina.
Figure 2. Gulf Coast HIDTA Region Transportation Infrastructure
Mexican DTOs transport powder cocaine, ice methamphetamine, commercial-grade marijuana, and Mexican brown powder and black tar heroin from Arizona, California, Texas, and Mexico through the Gulf Coast HIDTA region to Atlanta using I-10 and I-20 and to Tennessee and North Carolina using I-40. Some of these drugs are sold to traffickers in the Gulf Coast HIDTA region, but most are transported to Atlanta and North Carolina. In addition, midlevel and retail-level traffickers in the Gulf Coast HIDTA region use private vehicles to travel to distribution centers in Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, and Memphis to purchase drugs and return to the region to sell them. For example, in October 2008 Alabama State Police troopers seized 10 pounds of marijuana and 300 MDMA tablets from traffickers using a rental vehicle to transport the drugs on I-85 from Atlanta to Montgomery, Alabama.
The extensive coastline and developed port structure in the Gulf Coast represent a smuggling opportunity for drug traffickers. Major port facilities operate in Gulfport, Mobile, South Louisiana, and New Orleans. The Port of South Louisiana, consisting of port facilities between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, is the largest cargo port in the United States by tonnage. It is a diverse general cargo port, handling containerized cargo such as apparel, food products, mineral ore, and consumer merchandise; the port handled 225.5 million tons of general cargo in 2008. The Port of New Orleans is also a leading U.S. cargo port and averaged 8.6 million tons of general cargo handled from 2003 through 2007 (the latest year for which data are available). In 2008, several packages containing illicit drugs were found washed up on the shoreline along the Gulf Coast, and in August 2008, law enforcement officers seized over 907 pounds of marijuana from a maritime vessel docked at the Port of New Orleans; however, the full extent of drug-related transportation through maritime conveyances in the region is an intelligence gap.
Law enforcement officials occasionally seize drugs from air cargo, commercial air passengers, and package delivery services in the Gulf Coast HIDTA region. According to NSS data, law enforcement officials in the Gulf Coast HIDTA region seized 2.09 kilograms of cocaine, 0.90 kilograms of hallucinogens, and 5,000 dosage units of MDMA from air cargo and package delivery services in 2008. In addition, law enforcement officers in Mississippi report that Caucasian and Mexican traffickers are using package delivery services to transport high-potency marijuana called "purple kush" from Sacramento, California, to Mississippi. The Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport is the largest airport in the Gulf Coast HIDTA region, servicing almost 8 million domestic and international passengers and handling nearly 100 million pounds of domestic freight and mail in 2008. The airport affords traffickers the opportunity to transport drugs by courier or by concealing them among legitimate goods. Additional international airports are located in Birmingham and Huntsville; Jackson; and Alexandria, Louisiana, as well as numerous metropolitan and regional airports in other cities that provide additional trafficking opportunities.
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