Gary D. Helson
Enforcement Group Supervisor
Clandestine Laboratory Enforcement Group
San Diego Field Division
Drug Enforcement Administration
House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime
April 21, 2000
Note: This document may not reflect changes made in actual delivery.
Congressman Hutchinson, Members of the Subcommittee: I am pleased to have the opportunity to appear before you today to discuss the serious problems that methamphetamine manufacturing, trafficking, and abuse, pose to the citizens of our country and specifically to the citizens of San Diego and Imperial Counties in Southern California. I would also like to take this opportunity to thank you for your continued support of federal, state and local drug law enforcement.
It is fair to say that methamphetamine is one of the most significant law enforcement and social issues facing Southern California and our nation today. Since becoming a DEA Special Agent, I have controlled or participated in the investigation and seizures of over 100 clandestine methamphetamine laboratories and conducted numerous methamphetamine trafficking investigations. I, and many other DEA, and state and local law enforcement officers, have witnessed first hand the high social cost of methamphetamine abuse: the disintegration of affected families; the neglect, abuse and endangerment of the innocent children of methamphetamine abusers, traffickers and manufacturers; and the increase in domestic and general violence spurred by methamphetamine. In the past several years, the methamphetamine craze has spread eastward across our nation and affected other specific regions of the country in a similar dramatic fashion. It is my hope that my testimony today will give you a more clear understanding of the impact that methamphetamine production and trafficking has on San Diego and the nation as a whole; and how DEA and other federal, state and local agencies are working together to address the problem.
The History of Methamphetamine in Southern California
Methamphetamine is not a new problem for California, unlike other areas of the country. Methamphetamine trafficking and clandestine methamphetamine laboratories have been encountered by California's federal, state and local law enforcement officials since the 1970's. Historically, the major suppliers of methamphetamine throughout the United States were outlaw motorcycle gangs and numerous other independent trafficking groups. Although these groups continue to produce and distribute methamphetamine, criminal Mexican drug trafficking organizations operating from Mexico and California now dominate wholesale methamphetamine trafficking in the United States.
In the mid-1980's, when San Diego had the unfortunate distinction of being called the "methamphetamine capitol of the country," large numbers of "super labs" were being seized in the county of San Diego. "Super labs" are defined as those clandestine labs capable of producing over 10 pounds of finished methamphetamine product per process. During 1987, approximately 130 methamphetamine "super labs" were seized in San Diego County alone, which represented approximately 30% of all of the illicit drug labs seized in the United States during that year. At that time, there were no laws regulating the precursor chemicals (ephedrine and hydriodic acid) most preferred by illicit methamphetamine lab operators in California and there were multiple rouge chemical companies operating in San Diego County. As a result of several highly successful undercover DEA operations targeting those rouge companies and their customers, they were shut down. As a result, a large number of illicit methamphetamine lab operators were arrested and sentenced to prison. Chemical precursor control laws were subsequently enacted on the federal and state levels, which made it much more difficult for the traditional methamphetamine suppliers to obtain chemicals for the manufacture of methamphetamine. The number of large methamphetamine laboratories seized in the San Diego area began to decrease. The trend for the last several years has indicated that the larger methamphetamine laboratories appeared to move operations to the central and northern areas of California, or south of the border into Mexico.
Over the past several years, established Mexican drug trafficking organizations operating in Mexico and Southern and Central California have seized control of the illicit methamphetamine trade and established a lucrative stronghold in this criminal enterprise. The principal reasons for their rise to dominance are the Mexican drug trafficking organizations ability to exploit an existing, well established transportation and distribution network on both sides of the border, as well as their ability to illegally secure large amounts of precursor chemicals. Mexican organizations have revolutionized the production of methamphetamine by operating large-scale laboratories in Mexico and California that are capable of producing unprecedented quantities of methamphetamine. Almost all of the "super labs" operating in the United States are located in California. While these Mexican organizations operate only a small percentage of the total methamphetamine laboratories seized in Southern California, they produce an estimated 95% of the methamphetamine distributed in Southern California. Since most of the methamphetamine sold in California and throughout the United States is produced either in California "super labs" or smuggled into California from Mexico, San Diego remains a "source area" for this illicit drug. The Mexican organizations have saturated the western United States market with methamphetamine; established their distribution cells in other regions of the United States; and are increasingly moving their methamphetamine to markets in the midwestern and eastern United States. The above statements are corroborated by intelligence information from law enforcement confidential sources; the post arrest statements of numerous defendants; the results of numerous investigations; statistics documenting the seizures of clandestine methamphetamine labs; large seizures of methamphetamine in other states transported from California; and significantly increased border seizures of methamphetamine being smuggled into California from Mexico.
Although there has been a significant decrease in the clandestine labs seized in the San Diego area over the past several years, recent discoveries of large methamphetamine lab waste dump sites in rural parts of San Diego County, have indicated that major production of methamphetamine is again increasing in the area. DEA and the California State Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement are working together to aggressively pursue those investigations.
Domestically Produced Methamphetamine
While the vast majority of methamphetamine available in the United States is produced and trafficked by the well-organized groups from Mexico, domestic production of methamphetamine by United States citizens is also a significant problem. The National Clandestine Laboratory Database records for 1999 indicate that 35% of the nation's 7,010 labs seized (by all agencies) were located in California. Fifty-three (53) of those labs seized in 1999 were located in San Diego County and three were seized in Imperial County, Ca. With the exception of a few, most of the labs seized in the San Diego area in recent years have been of the smaller "mom and pop" variety, also referred to as "counter-top" labs.
The production level of these small, makeshift, "counter-top" laboratories is relatively low; varying from three or four ounces to one pound of finished methamphetamine per process. However, the large number of these labs and the environmental and law enforcement concerns associated with their operation, poses major problems to state and local law enforcement agencies, as well as to DEA.
Methamphetamine is, in fact, a very simple drug to produce. A user can go to retail stores and easily purchase the majority of the ingredients necessary to manufacture the drug. Precursor chemicals such as pseudoephedrine can be extracted from common, over-the-counter cold medications. A clandestine lab operator can utilize relatively common items.Unlike Fentanyl, LSD, or other types of dangerous drugs, it does not take a college-educated chemist to produce methamphetamine. It is common during the arrests and searches of methamphetamine lab operators to find handwritten "recipes" or instructions on their process to manufacture methamphetamine. The handwritten "recipes" generally reflect the author's lack of education in chemistry and are frequently cryptic and inexact, which may be one reason we see so many accidental fires, explosions, and injuries in clandestine lab incidents.
The highly toxic and flammable chemicals involved make these rudimentary laboratories ticking time bombs that require specialized training to dismantle, process for evidence and clean up. In 1999, clandestine methamphetamine labs caused two fires in residences in San Diego County. A San Diego County police officer initially responding to another methamphetamine laboratory was overcome by toxic fumes and had to receive medical treatment.
The threats posed by clandestine labs are not limited to fire, explosion, poison gas, and drug abuse. The chemical contamination of the hazardous waste contained in these labs also poses a serious danger to our environment. Each pound of methamphetamine generated in a clandestine lab can result in as much as five pounds of toxic waste. Clandestine lab operators routinely dump the toxic waste into our open areas, our rivers and streams, and sewage systems to cover up the evidence of their illegal operations, without regard for the environmental damage they cause. Clandestine laboratory cleanup costs in DEA San Diego Division in 1998 ranged from $781.00 up to $13,000.00 depending on the size of the lab. In 1998, 44 clandestine laboratory sites were cleans up. The average cleanup cost was $3,058.79.
DEA Methamphetamine Strategy
The primary focus of DEA's methamphetamine strategy in San Diego and across the nation, calls for a strong and aggressive enforcement effort aimed at chemical companies, chemical brokers, and domestic elements of large scale Mexican trafficking organizations involved in the production, transportation and distribution of methamphetamine and its precursors.
The tracking of methamphetamine precursor chemicals is essential in the DEA's effort to identify and eliminate methamphetamine production. The tracking of precursor chemical purchases of pseudoephedrine, ephedrine, red phosphorus; as well as other commonly used chemicals such as freon and iodine; have and will lead to the location and seizure of clandestine methamphetamine labs. Because of federal, state, and local efforts aimed at chemical suppliers, it has become increasingly difficult for domestic methamphetamine lab operators to obtain large amounts of the chemical precursors and other chemicals they need to manufacture large amounts of methamphetamine.
This domestic situation has led to attempts by some organizations to smuggle chemicals related to methamphetamine manufacturing into California from Mexico. There has been a noticeable increase in the seizures of iodine being smuggled into California from Mexico. When iodine and other chemicals related to methamphetamine manufacturing are smuggled into the United States from Mexico, it can be assumed that they are intended for use in clandestine laboratories in the United States.
The San Diego Area is fortunate to have the long established and highly successful partnership between DEA and local and state law enforcement agencies known as the San Diego Integrated Narcotic Task Force, also locally known as the NTF. Numerous local and state law enforcement officers assigned to the NTF are cross sworn as DEA Agents and work under DEA guidelines in a coordinated effort to fight drug trafficking crime in the San Diego area. San Diego currently has 67 DEA and NTF Agents who have been formally trained and equipped by DEA to respond to and investigate clandestine drug labs in our area.
It has long been established that in addition to marijuana, methamphetamine is the drug of choice by the majority of San Diego's drug users. Consequently, a significant percentage of the investigative and operational effort by DEA and NTF in San Diego has been targeted toward methamphetamine production and manufacturing. During 1999, DEA and NTF San Diego have initiated 357 investigations targeted directly at major methamphetamine and chemical traffickers. Many of those investigations are on going. Thus far, those investigations have resulted in the arrests of 567 defendants for chemical and methamphetamine trafficking and production violations.
DEA has also continued it's long history of coordinating with authorities in other countries to disrupt drug trafficking from those countries into the United States. In two recent methamphetamine manufacturing and trafficking investigations initiated by DEA San Diego, detailed information was developed on the locations of two "super labs" in Mexico. Information provided by DEA enabled Mexican Federal Authorities to seize both clandestine methamphetamine labs.
Methamphetamine, as well as other controlled substances, which are produced in clandestine laboratories, are an increasing threat to the security of the citizens of San Diego and our nation. Such clandestine laboratories also provide a serious threat to the law enforcement personnel who have to seize and neutralize them. As the number of clandestine drug laboratories operated by both international criminal organizations and small, independent groups continues to escalate, so does the threat to our law enforcement personnel and our society. I can assure you that DEA will continue to promote cooperative investigative efforts with our brothers and sisters in state and local law enforcement; and continue to coordinate with the drug law enforcement agencies of other countries, to address this dangerous problem. I thank you for this opportunity to address the Subcommittee and I look forward to taking any questions you may have on this important issue.