DEA Congressional Testimony
August 08, 2000


Statement by:

Joseph J. Corcoran
Special Agent in Charge
Saint Louis Division
Drug Enforcement Administration


Before the:

House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime

Date:

August 8, 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 growing dangers that methamphetamine trafficking use and abuse and the spread of clandestine drug laboratories pose to the citizens of our country. It is fair to say that methamphetamine is one of the most significant law enforcement and social issues facing our nation today, and it has affected specific regions of the country in a dramatic fashion. I will focus my comments today specifically on the Kansas City District Office's area of responsibility, which includes the states of Kansas and the western portion of Missouri.

Methamphetamine trafficking and use have increased exponentially over the past six years, and my testimony today will provide the subcommittee with information on how, where, and why this has occurred, and how federal law enforcement is working with state and local partners across the nation to address the methamphetamine problem.

While methamphetamine is not an entirely new problem in the United States, about six years ago an upsurge in methamphetamine trafficking and abuse began taking hold in many regions of the nation, starting on the West Coast, and rapidly expanding into the Midwest and, to a lesser extent, the Southeastern United States. DEA statistics indicate that in 1993, DEA seized a total of 218 methamphetamine labs. Current DEA statistics indicate that in 1999, DEA alone seized over 2,000 clandestine laboratories and that the total number of laboratories seized by Federal, state, and local law enforcement officers nationwide was over 7,000.

Since 1994, the Midwestern United States has experienced a significant increase in the use and availability of methamphetamine. DEA Kansas City continues to confront a dual methamphetamine problem: not only is methamphetamine transported into Kansas and Missouri by organized criminal drug trafficking groups operating from California and the Southwest border, but methamphetamine is produced in hundreds of local clandestine laboratories by loose-knit networks of individuals. These clandestine laboratories represent a substantial health and safety threat to communities. The toxic, and often highly flammable chemicals used in the manufacturing process pose a threat to law enforcement and emergency response personnel, as well as the general public. Fires and explosions are a constant threat in this type of environment. Traffickers often dispose of chemicals improperly, creating environmental problems that require expensive clean up.

The National Clandestine Laboratory Database, which became operational in January 1999, serves as a clearinghouse for all federal, state, and local clandestine laboratory seizures and is maintained by the El Paso Intelligence Center (EPIC). DEA nationwide methamphetamine arrests in 1999 totaled 8,783. Of those, 450 methamphetamine arrests were made in Kansas City District Office's area of responsibility. Nationwide methamphetamine seizures have increased significantly since 1995. In 1992, the Kansas City District Office seized only three clandestine labs compared to 1998 where approximately 347 labs were seized. By 1999, the total number of labs seized in the KCDO area of responsibility climbed to over 590 and as of July 2000, the KCDO has seized over 400 clan labs. These clandestine laboratory seizure statistics are based upon data submitted to the EPIC, the actual number of lab seizures may be higher as some state and local police agencies have not submitted all of the reports to this database.

Although the quantities of production were insignificant in comparison to California "super lab" operations, it is noted that the seizure and processing of a small lab is usually almost as time consuming as the large laboratories. The vast majority of methamphetamine distributed in the U.S. is produced by Mexican crime groups in "super lab" operations in California and Mexico, then subsequently distributed nationwide to areas such as Kansas and Missouri. However, based strictly on numbers, Kansas and Missouri have more total laboratories reported (on a per capita basis) than California. However, despite the continued seizures of clandestine laboratories throughout our area, methamphetamine remains readily available and routinely sells for approximately $800 - $2,000 dollars per ounce and from $12,000 - $25,000 dollars per kilogram.

Until recently, the DEA Kansas City District Office reported that the number of clandestine methamphetamine laboratories in its area of responsibility was increasing at an alarming rate, with an average of one clandestine lab seizure per day, including labs seized by state and local agencies and dismantled with COPS funding. In addition, the Kansas City office still continues to note significant trafficking of methamphetamine from California by local Mexican drug trafficking organizations.

Many of the small clandestine laboratories manufacture methamphetamine using the sodium ammonia or "Nazi" method. The "Nazi" formula of methamphetamine production utilizes ephedrine/pseudoephedrine reduction, as well as sodium or lithium metal, and other dangerous chemicals such as anhydrous ammonia and ethyl ether in the process. Sodium metal is an extreme fire hazard, and will ignite upon contact with water. This production technique has spread throughout the Midwest and accounts for many of the methamphetamine labs seized by DEA.

Historically, the suppliers of methamphetamine throughout the United States have been outlaw motorcycle gangs and numerous other independent trafficking groups. Although these groups continue to produce and distribute methamphetamine, organized crime polydrug trafficking groups operating from Mexico and California dominate wholesale methamphetamine trafficking in the United States. Over the past few years, these groups have revolutionized the production of this drug by operating large-scale laboratories in Mexico and the United States that are capable of producing unprecedented quantities of methamphetamine. The groups have saturated the western U.S. market with this product, increasingly moving the product to markets in the eastern United States.

The violence associated with methamphetamine trafficking and use has also produced a collateral impact on the crime statistics of communities across the U.S. Methamphetamine-related violence usually results from the user under the influence of the drug; users who committed violent acts to obtain money or more of the drug; and distributors who used violence in the course of conducting their illicit business. Every community with a methamphetamine abuse problem has experienced violence in some form or another. However, most commonly, this violence routinely presents itself in the form of domestic violence.

International Organized Crime Groups Based in Mexico

Today, there are two major forces fueling the methamphetamine trade within the United States: first, the well-organized methamphetamine manufacturing and trafficking groups based in Mexico; and second, a widely scattered series of local methamphetamine producers, predominantly based in rural areas around the country.

Traffickers based in Mexico have had a long history of involvement in poly-drug production and smuggling. For years, these powerful and violent groups produced and smuggled marijuana and heroin into the United States, dominating the heroin trade in the Southwest and Midwest regions of the nation. During the early 1990s, the Cali cartel reached an accommodation with trafficking groups based in Mexico who agreed to transport multi-ton quantities of cocaine into the United States. At first, transporters from Mexico were paid in cash, but eventually they negotiated to be paid in cocaine, which they distributed themselves within the United States. This series of changes in the cocaine trade, along with the arrest of the powerful Cali leaders in 1995 and 1996, greatly strengthened the organizations from Mexico.

The increased power and sophistication of the Mexican traffickers led them to seek to successfully dominate all phases of the methamphetamine trade, from beginning to end. Because methamphetamine is a synthetic drug created from a mixture of chemicals, traffickers based in Mexico did not have to rely on traffickers in other nations to provide coca or finished cocaine for distribution. These groups initially had ready access to precursor chemicals on the international market. These chemicals have fewer controls in Mexico and overseas than in the United States, a fact which allowed the organizations to produce large quantities of high purity methamphetamine in clandestine laboratories in Mexico. Methamphetamine organizations based in Mexico have developed international connections with chemical suppliers in Europe, Asia, and the Far East, and with these connections, they have been able to obtain ton quantities of the necessary precursor chemicals (ephedrine and pseudo-ephedrine) to manufacture methamphetamine and amphetamine. In recent years, with the growth of DEA led international efforts to control the flow of bulk ephedrine and pseudo-ephedrine, Mexican traffickers have also turned to tableted forms of these precursors to manufacture their product and now frequently buy their products from rogue chemical suppliers in the United States.

In addition, readily available precursor chemicals allow trafficking groups from Mexico to produce thousands of pounds of methamphetamine in laboratories in Mexico and California. These methamphetamine organizations based in Mexico also have well-established, polydrug distribution networks in place throughout our country. This snapshot of methamphetamine use is a graphic illustration of the kind of devastation international cartels can bring to American communities--even the smallest ones. They are responsible for the majority of the methamphetamine available in this country, and the super-labs they operate produce between 10 to 100 pounds of methamphetamine per process.

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 production level of these laboratories, often makeshift and described as mom and pop labs, is relatively low; 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 vast majority of the ingredients necessary to manufacture the drug. Items such as rock salt, battery acid, red phosphorous road flares, pool acid, and iodine crystals can be utilized to substitute for some of the necessary chemicals. Precursor chemicals such as pseudoephedrine can be extracted from common, over-the-counter cold medications. A clandestine lab operator can utilize relatively common items such as mason jars, coffee filters, hot plates, pressure cookers, pillowcases, plastic tubing, gas cans, etc., to substitute for sophisticated laboratory equipment. Unlike Fentanyl, LSD, or other types of dangerous drugs, it does not take a college-educated chemist to produce methamphetamine. In fact, less than 10 percent of those suspects arrested for the manufacture of methamphetamine are trained chemists, which may be one reason we see so many fires, explosions, and injuries in clandestine lab incidents.

Despite the fact that the majority of these laboratories produce relatively small amounts of methamphetamine, the proliferation of this type of laboratory has imposed terrible burdens on law enforcement agencies and departments.

In some respects, the methamphetamine problem is synonymous with the clandestine laboratory problem and this issue has been the focus of much media attention this past year. Although the methamphetamine problem and the clandestine lab problem are both part of the same drug abuse mosaic, in reality, they are somewhat different issues, which may require a different law enforcement response in order to successfully combat the spiraling increases in both arenas.

The threats posed by clandestine labs are not limited to fire, explosion, poison gas, drug abuse, and booby traps; the chemical contamination of the hazardous waste contained in these labs also poses a serious danger to our nation's environment. Each pound of methamphetamine generated in a clandestine lab can result in as much as five pounds of toxic waste, which clandestine lab operators routinely dump into our nations streams, rivers, and sewage systems to cover up the evidence of their illegal operations. In addition, clan lab operators routinely show a blatant disregard for the health and safety of others as evidenced by the number of children who have been present at clan lab sites. In 1999 the states of Kansas and Missouri reported a total of 88 children located at lab sites. As of July 2000 over 104 children were reported at clan lab sites.

Because of the possibility of explosions and direct contact with toxic fumes and hazardous chemicals, law enforcement officers who raid clandestine drug labs are now required to take special hazardous materials (HAZMAT) handling training. The highly toxic and flammable chemicals involved make these rudimentary laboratories ticking timebombs that require specialized training to dismantle and clean. DEA is pleased to have certified thousands of state and local law enforcement officers in raiding and dismantling them and provide funds for cleaning them up.

The size of lab does not matter when it comes to the danger level involved in a clandestine laboratory raid. The smaller labs are usually more dangerous than the larger operations because the cooks are generally less experienced chemists who often have little regard for the safety issues that arise when dealing with explosive and poisonous chemicals. However, the size of a clandestine laboratory can be a significant factor in the costs associated with the hazardous waste cleanup. Larger production laboratories usually have larger quantities of toxic chemicals, and therefore, more significant hazardous waste disposal charges.

DEA records indicate that the average costs of cleanup for clandestine labs seized in Kansas and Missouri during Fiscal Year 1999 is approximately $3,500 dollars. In September of 1998 the DEA conducted an investigation which led to the discovery and seizure of a "super lab" located in Kansas City, capable of producing 70 kilograms of methamphetamine. The lab was located in a false room in the basement of a residence, which was hidden behind a magnetically controlled door. The subsequent cost of the clean up for this super lab was in excess of $10,000.00 dollars.

DEA's Strategy to Fight Methamphetamine

DEA's methamphetamine strategy encompasses several elements, including targeting and building cases against the major methamphetamine traffickers based in Mexico, and against their surrogates operating in the United States today; assisting state and local law enforcement agencies in making cases against methamphetamine manufacturers and traffickers working in the United States; partnering with state and local law enforcement to assist with training and laboratory clean-up; and controlling the precursor chemicals necessary for methamphetamine production in Mexico and the United States.

As a part of the KCDO strategy, DEA implemented a Clan Lab Task Force that is comprised of DEA agents as well as state and local law enforcement officers. In addition, the Kansas City High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) Task Force assigned a DEA agent to the Metropolitan Law Enforcement Meth Task Force as a part of the HIDTA strategy. The purpose of these strategies is to combine federal, state, and local assets in order to combat the methamphetamine threat within this region.

DEA Clandestine Laboratory Safety/Certification Training

In 1987, DEA created a special training unit for clandestine laboratory safety/certification training which is located at the U.S. Marine Corp Base at Camp Upshur, Quantico, Virginia. This unit originated in response to concerns from DEA management that the agency's Special Agents and task force officers were being exposed to hazardous, toxic, and carcinogenic chemicals while executing raids on clandestine drug laboratories. Some DEA field offices, primarily in the state of California, were reporting that Special Agents and officers appeared to be suffering serious health problems as a result of both short and long-term exposure to the chemical and toxic fumes encountered when processing these drug laboratories. The U.S. Code of Federal Regulations, 29 C.F.R. 1910.12, now mandates that all federal, state, and local law enforcement officers must receive at least 24 hours of hazardous chemical handling training (specific Occupational Safety, Health and Administration (OSHA) standards for courses and equipment), prior to entering a clandestine drug laboratory.

The dangers associated with the clandestine manufacture of methamphetamine are clear. Reports from DEA and state police records indicate that at least five or six methamphetamine producers are now being killed every year from explosions and/or fires in clandestine labs. Many more receive serious burns or develop serious health problems from clandestine laboratory explosions and fires. There have been reports of apartment complexes and a $3,500,000 hotel, which burned down as the result of drug lab "cooks" that turned into chemical time bombs. Recent years have seen an increase in the number of injuries to untrained police officers that investigate and/or dismantle clandestine laboratories without utilizing the proper safety equipment.

However, the chemical and environmental hazards are not the only threat to law enforcement. Clandestine laboratory operators continue to pose a significant threat to law enforcement officers conducting operations. In Bethany, Missouri, a DEA entry team came under fire while conducting an enforcement operation at a clandestine lab. In another incident in Independence, Missouri, the laboratory operators attempted to dispose of their chemicals by throwing them on the floors and walls, thereby creating a cloud of hazardous fumes for the entry team. And in Gladstone, Missouri, the laboratory operators actually threw their chemicals at the entry team. These potentially lethal confrontations underscore the need for this specialized training and equipment. In Kansas and Missouri, DEA has trained and certified over 490 law enforcement officers.

In response to this serious problem and to satisfy the training requirement established by OSHA, DEA has initiated an aggressive training schedule to increase the number of clandestine laboratory safety schools provided to state and local police throughout the nation. The DEA Clandestine Laboratory Safety Program conducts its safety/certification schools at the DEA Clandestine Laboratory Training Facility in Quantico Virginia. This specialized unit frequently conducts in-service training and seminars for law enforcement groups such as the Clandestine Laboratory Investigators Association (CLIA) and the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP). In addition, the DEA Clandestine Laboratory Training Unit provides police awareness training seminars to law enforcement organizations across the U.S., as well as the annual re-certification training which is mandated by OSHA regulations.

Students who graduate from the DEA Clandestine Lab School in Quantico, Virginia, are issued over $2,000 in specialized clandestine lab safety gear. Some of the items issued include: Level III nomex fire-resistant ballistic vests; nomex fire-resistant jackets, pants, and gloves; chemical resistant boots; air purified respirators; combat retention holsters; special flashlights; chemical resistant clothing for conducting hazard assessments and processing drug labs; and goggles to prevent eye injuries in the event a suspect throws acid or other dangerous chemicals at law enforcement personnel. Since 1997, DEA has conducted numerous clandestine laboratory schools and have certified over 3,500 Special Agents and state and local law enforcement personnel across the country.

COPS FUNDING

In FY 2000, no additional funding was provided to DEA through the COPS program for clandestine laboratory training or cleanup services. Instead, funding was provided through COPS, to 14 states across the country, to cover the cost of state and local methamphetamine-related cleanup, training, and enforcement programs. Unfortunately, even with this allocation of resources by the Congress, numerous states continued to remain reliant upon DEA for clandestine laboratory training and cleanup services.

Although DEA has had enough reserve funding to provide clandestine laboratory training to state and local law enforcement in FY 2000, with the continued escalation of methamphetamine laboratory seizures across the country, the agency quickly depleted its carryover resources for state and local clandestine laboratory cleanup. By March 15, 2000, DEA completely exhausted its reserve funding for state and local clandestine laboratory cleanup. This situation put the agency in the precarious position of being unable to continue to provide cleanup services to state and local law enforcement upon request, without additional assistance from the Congress and President.

In an effort to address this situation, DEA worked diligently with the Department of Justice, the Office of Management and Budget, and the Congress to secure an additional $10 million in FY 2000 funding for state and local clandestine laboratory cleanup. On May 11, 2000, Congress approved a plan to provide DEA with an additional $5.0 million in FY 2000 clandestine laboratory cleanup resources. This funding has been officially reprogrammed to DEA from the Department of Justice and is currently available for distribution.

DEA is continuing to work with the Congress to secure the remaining $5million in FY 2000 clandestine laboratory cleanup resources to ensure that the agency has enough funding to provide ongoing services to state and local law enforcement for the remainder of the fiscal year. The agency has also implemented a plan to reimburse states for the clandestine laboratory cleanup costs they incurred from the months of March to May.

ACCOMPLISHMENTS

Today, we are optimistic that our chemical control efforts, combined with aggressive anti-methamphetamine law enforcement efforts in the local police arena, have been the catalyst for the decrease in methamphetamine purity. However, success in combating the smaller lab-based methamphetamine problem may be much more difficult to achieve. In the past year, several DEA offices in the Midwest and California have reported that the purity of Mexican methamphetamine has significantly dropped in the majority of controlled purchases and seizures. Many law enforcement agencies in the Midwest and California are now reporting that the previous high purity (80%+ range) of Mexican methamphetamine has now dropped to less than 30%. Information provided by DEA reporting systems shows that nationally, the average purity for methamphetamine has dropped from 71.9 percent in 1994 to an average of 31.1 percent in 1999.

Conclusion

Methamphetamine, and other controlled substances, which are produced in clandestine laboratories, provides an increasing threat to drug law enforcement personnel as well as the citizens of our nation. The vast power and influence of international drug trafficking syndicates, particularly those based in Mexico, continues to grow. Their impact on communities around our nation is devastating.

Domestically based drug traffickers who engage in methamphetamine production and trafficking are also a major threat to our nation's stability. Since methamphetamine is relatively easy to produce, and with the proliferation of information on methamphetamine production available on the Internet, unscrupulous individuals will continue to take part in this illegal and dangerous enterprise. Traffickers only need $1,000 worth of chemicals to make $10,000 in methamphetamine in a trailer, a hotel room or house in any location within the United States.

As the number of clandestine labs operated by both internationally-based criminal organizations and mom and pop, small, independent groups continue to escalate, the chances of narcotics officers, or other uniformed personnel, inadvertently encountering clandestine labs will become more and more prevalent. In the years to come, DEA will continue to work to improve its efforts in the methamphetamine arena to ensure a safe future for both our law enforcement personnel dedicated to addressing this dangerous problem as well as our citizens. I thank you for providing me with this opportunity to address the Subcommittee and I look forward to taking any questions you may have on this important issue.

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