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California - Southern District Drug Threat Assessment
San Diego is no longer considered "the meth capital of the United States" but it continues to be a center for methamphetamine activity. According to a 1999 Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) report, Mexican DTOs are responsible for approximately 80 percent of methamphetamine distribution nationwide. Although Mexican DTOs continue to operate methamphetamine superlabs in the United States, the bulk of the methamphetamine consumed in the United States is produced in Mexico. San Diego remains one of the first destinations for the large quantities smuggled across the Southwest Border. From 1998 to 1999, seizures increased 85 percent in San Diego and Imperial Counties--from 312 to 577 kilograms. This represents 54 percent of the methamphetamine seized on the Southwest Border.
The DEA San Diego Field Division and local law enforcement report that methamphetamine production, trafficking, and abuse constitute the most serious drug threat in Southern California. The DEA San Diego Field Division reports that methamphetamine is the drug of choice and is available in all quantities. Imperial County is experiencing an increase in methamphetamine activity. DEA reports that bulk seizures of the drug are becoming more commonplace and that some distributors prefer to sell this drug in lieu of cocaine.
The San Diego Sheriff's Department identifies methamphetamine as a stable but major threat, and the Chula Vista Police Department classifies methamphetamine as a major and increasing threat. Drug use information indicates that methamphetamine use declined in the San Diego area in 1999. However, current anecdotal information and FY2000 data from the California Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs suggests that methamphetamine use may be increasing once again.
Information from law enforcement sources at the federal, state, and local levels in San Diego and Imperial Counties indicates that a large percentage of their resources are focused on the methamphetamine problem. In 1999, these agencies conducted 7,307 narcotic enforcement actions in San Diego and Imperial Counties, 3,024 or 42 percent of which were methamphetamine-related, the highest of eight arrest categories that also include cocaine-, crack cocaine-, heroin-, marijuana-, polydrug-, other dangerous drug-, and money laundering-related actions. The San Diego County Integrated Narcotic Task Force reports that 40 percent of drug arrests made during the first 8 months of fiscal year (FY) 2000 were methamphetamine-related (114 of 285).
Although most of the methamphetamine available in the district is smuggled across the border from Mexico, some is produced in the two-county area. In addition to the crime and violence associated with methamphetamine trafficking and abuse, there is a societal impact associated with the abuse and production of the drug. As a result of the proliferation of clandestine methamphetamine laboratories, particularly "home labs," children, law enforcement personnel, and civilians are increasingly exposed to the dangers of explosions, toxic chemicals, and lethal by-products of the manufacturing process. In addition to the human risk factor, toxic by-products of the methamphetamine manufacturing process can contaminate groundwater, soil, and the buildings housing the laboratories.
Children are also at risk for abuse and neglect by parents or caregivers addicted to the drug. San Diego is one of seven counties in California with a Drug Endangered Children (DEC) program. DEC coordinates efforts of law enforcement, the District Attorney's Office, and social services to respond to the plight of children exposed to toxic chemicals at clandestine laboratory sites. The Imperial County Narcotics Task Force reported that in 1999, they had several cases where children as young as 4 months had to be removed from homes where methamphetamine was being sold. In one case, three children were removed from a home described as a "pigsty" because "rotting food and trash were stacked 3 feet high" throughout. The children were in the care of their grandmother who was arrested for selling methamphetamine. The San Diego Union-Tribune reported that since 1998 the San Diego District Attorney's DEC program has rescued more than 200 children from homes where methamphetamine laboratories operated.
Although methamphetamine continues to be classified as the number one threat in the region, methamphetamine use appears to have declined from previous high levels. Various drug use reports indicate that methamphetamine use is down in West Coast cities and areas of the Southwest. According to ADAM statistics, the percentage of adult arrestees in the San Diego area testing positive for methamphetamine dropped from 40 percent in 1997 to about 33 percent in 1998. Juvenile arrestees testing positive for methamphetamine similarly declined, from 17 to 12.2 percent.
In San Diego, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) estimated rate of emergency department methamphetamine/speed mentions decreased from 30 per 100,000 in 1995 to 24 per 100,000 in 1999. Methamphetamine overdose deaths were at the lowest level since at least 1992. According to the California Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs, treatment admissions for "amphetamines" declined slightly from 1995 to 1997 in both San Diego and Imperial Counties. Admissions in San Diego fell from 3,933 in 1995 to 3,783 in 1997. Imperial County amphetamine admissions decreased from 257 in 1995 to 192 in 1997.
Between FY1998 and FY1999, methamphetamine admissions in San Diego County fell 2.6 percent. During the same period, Imperial County admissions declined 34 percent, from 186 to 122. Overall, the number of individuals seeking treatment for methamphetamine abuse declined in both counties between FY1998 and FY1999.
More Caucasians than Hispanics sought treatment for methamphetamine abuse in San Diego in both fiscal years. Imperial County reports that more Caucasians than Hispanics sought treatment in FY1998 but in the following year Hispanics outnumbered Caucasians. In San Diego and Imperial Counties more females than males sought treatment for methamphetamine abuse in FY1998 and FY1999. The age of those seeking treatment ranged from under 18 to over 55 but was most heavily concentrated in the 21- to 40-year bracket.
According to DAWN, total drug deaths in the San Diego area increased yearly between 1995 and 1997 when the number of deaths peaked at 419. In 1998 that number declined to 338. (See Chart 1.) During that same period, the number of deaths in which methamphetamine was mentioned decreased from 99 deaths in 1995 to 84 in 1998. The 1998 figure is the lowest since 1993 when only 77 deaths were reported.
Chart 1. Methamphetamine-Related Deaths, San Diego, 1995-1998
Total Drug Deaths Methamphetamine
The availability of methamphetamine in San Diego and Imperial Counties is constant, and there has been no significant change in either price or purity. In their responses to the National Drug Intelligence Center's (NDIC) Drug Threat Survey, the San Diego Police Department, the San Diego Sheriff's Department, and the Chula Vista Police Department rated availability of methamphetamine as high. The San Diego Sheriff's Department and the San Diego Police Department rated the methamphetamine threat as major but unchanging; the Chula Vista Police Department identified the threat as major and increasing. The San Diego Police Department reports that it encounters methamphetamine in both rock and powder form in areas formerly dominated by crack. Currently, methamphetamine accounts for 50 percent of North San Diego Integrated Drug Task Force seizures; amounts seized range from 1 to 50 pounds. The Task Force reports the methamphetamine market is stable, prices are steady, and purity is between 20 and 94 percent.
The most recent methamphetamine price and purity figures available from the Narcotic Information Network (NIN) for San Diego and Imperial Counties indicate slight increases in price and purity. (See Table 4.)
Seizures of methamphetamine at California POEs increased from 312 pounds in 1998 to 577 pounds in 1999. The California Border Alliance Group (CBAG) reports that 1999 seizures in San Diego and Imperial Counties accounted for 54 percent (577 of 1,060 kg) of the methamphetamine seized at the Southwest Border, the highest since 1996. The California Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement (BNE) and the California Highway Patrol Border Division seized an additional 73 pounds of methamphetamine and 9,938 pounds of pseudoephedrine in 1999. CBAG also reports seizures of the precursors ephedrine and pseudoephedrine and of the essential chemicals hydriodic acid and iodine at POEs.
In 1998, 221 kilograms of amphetamine were seized at the Southwest Border, almost three times the amount seized in 1997. The Mexican DTOs are marketing amphetamine as methamphetamine. This may be an indication that Mexican DTOs are substituting phenylpropanolamine (PPA), either because federal controls are making it difficult to obtain the precursors ephedrine and pseudoephedrine or because of economics: PPA may be cheaper than either ephedrine or pseudoephedrine, thereby increasing the profit margin.
Methamphetamine addicts suffering the effects of prolonged or chronic abuse often display psychotic behavior such as paranoia, auditory and visual hallucinations, or mood disturbances and exhibit a tendency toward violence. In March 2000, the San Diego Sheriff's Department stated that "methamphetamine is a very dangerous drug that has been traced to violent criminal activity." It further reports that 70 percent of adult male and about 60 percent of juvenile arrestees test positive for methamphetamine, and comments, "Although those figures are down from previous years, they are still the highest in the nation."
In response to the NDIC's Gang Survey 2000, local law enforcement indicated that street gangs in their districts are involved in the distribution of methamphetamine and other drugs. In addition to the violent activity related to drug trafficking, these gangs also commit criminal acts such as assaults, drive-by shootings, homicides, auto thefts and carjackings. La Eme, which controls a portion of the drug trade in Southern California through street gangs, uses violence to maintain that control and expand its power base. The almost complete wholesale control of drug distribution in both San Diego and Imperial Counties by Mexican DTOs precludes some of the violence usually associated with the struggle for control of drug markets.To Top To Contents
Mexican criminals continue to be the primary methamphetamine producers in San Diego and Imperial Counties. Most use the ephedrine/pseudoephedrine reduction method, which produces greater amounts (10 lb or more) per cook. In addition to ephedrine/pseudoephedrine, this method uses red phosphorus and hydriodic acid. One source of pseudoephedrine used in the manufacture of methamphetamine is over-the-counter cold tablets. It appears that, in some cases, methamphetamine manufacturers use the entire tablet, including binders, which produces a poorer quality product because it lowers the purity and adds weight. Production of poor quality methamphetamine could be an attempt to cut costs, the result of difficulty in obtaining precursors, or both.
Because of the high levels of production, Southern California was once known as the methamphetamine capital of the United States. However, pressure from law enforcement in Southern California is causing operators of the larger laboratories to move further north to Orange and San Bernardino Counties, east to Arizona, and south to Baja California Norte.
There is a continuing trend in Southern California toward small "tweaker labs" that produce ounce to pound quantities for personal use and sale. Most small laboratories are seized from residences, but laboratories also have been found in sheds in remote locations and in the trunks of cars. While operators of most small laboratories use the ephedrine/pseudoephedrine method used by Mexican DTOs, there have been reports of a few using the "Nazi" method, which requires a shorter cook time and uses anhydrous ammonia in place of red phosphorus. The DEA San Diego Field Division seized 41 methamphetamine laboratories and three pseudoephedrine extraction laboratories in 1998. DEA reported 43 laboratory seizures in 1999. NIN reported that 62 laboratories were seized in San Diego County and 5 in Imperial County. NIN figures include additional laboratory seizures not reported to DEA. Methamphetamine laboratories are generally found in sparsely populated areas. In San Diego County, most of the laboratories seized were east and northeast of San Diego; in Imperial County, the laboratories were located west and northwest of El Centro.
San Diego County authorities responding to the National Drug Threat Survey estimate the cost of cleaning up a laboratory at $3,000. In 1999, DEA spent over $83,000 on 46 laboratory cleanups. This figure does not include the remediation cost of returning a laboratory site to its former condition, that is, removing contaminants from the water supply, soil, or structures in which the laboratories were operated. A recent report from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Superfund Program in San Francisco indicated that neither the EPA nor the state of California is funding the decontamination of structures used as methamphetamine laboratories. The cost of assessment and cleanup of structures can reach as high as $50,000 per unit.
U.S. Forest Service (USFS) sources report that methamphetamine producers set up laboratories on public land and dump the toxic by-products directly on the ground, causing serious environmental damage. At the very least, the resulting cleanup is costly; in the worst case scenario the damage to the environment is irreparable. The USFS also reports cases of traffickers who enter abandoned laboratory sites and set up "dirt labs" where they scrub the contaminated soil to recover methamphetamine and precursor residue.
Precursor and essential chemical trafficking is another methamphetamine-related problem facing law enforcement in San Diego and Imperial Counties. Because large quantities of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine are not readily available in the district, methamphetamine manufacturers and precursor "brokers" are forced to purchase products containing ephedrine or pseudoephedrine over the counter, smuggle the chemicals into the area from Mexico, or obtain them from unscrupulous chemical companies. In addition, these criminal broker organizations may also set up laboratories to extract the ephedrine or pseudoephedrine from combination products such as cold medicines.
In some instances, traffickers may acquire case quantities of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine products from operators of convenience stores and liquor stores. These store operators usually purchase the products from suppliers on the East Coast. The DEA San Diego Field Division and CBAG report that Middle Eastern criminals are the largest single ethnic group distributing pseudoephedrine tablets at both the wholesale and retail levels in the San Diego area. In January 2000, the California Highway Patrol seized 380,000 dosage units of pseudoephedrine from a Jordanian who was traveling from Vancouver to Los Angeles.
The smuggling of precursors and essential chemicals, both north and south, continues at the California-Mexico border. Ephedrine and pseudoephedrine seizures in Southern California in 1999 totaled 67 kilograms compared to 408 kilograms in 1998. In 1999, 675 pounds of iodine were seized. In December 1999, USCS at the Calexico POE seized 5 gallons of hydriodic acid that was concealed inside oil containers in the trunk of a car. In February 2000, USCS inspectors seized 217 pounds of crystalline iodine that was concealed in the seat of a pickup truck. The truck was driven by an alleged member of a Los Angeles street gang.
Federal and state regulations have made the purchase of precursor and essential chemicals within the United States increasingly difficult, forcing Mexican DTOs to obtain precursors from other countries. The major source countries for ephedrine and pseudoephedrine are China, India, Poland, and Germany. In addition to tightening the supply, stringent regulation has resulted in increased prices for these chemicals on the black market. One example is the price of iodine, which costs about $1,995 per 50 kilogram compared to the black market price of $9,000-$9,500. The most recent prices reported by NIN are shown in Table 5.
Precursor and Essential Chemical Prices
The Southern California District continues to be a destination area for methamphetamine. However, it is principally a transshipment point; most of the methamphetamine smuggled into the area from Mexico is destined for other locations in California and the United States. A variety of conveyances and concealment methods are used in smuggling methamphetamine into the United States. The most popular places of concealment in commercial and personal vehicles include hidden compartments, air bag compartments, quarter panels, and gas tanks. USCS recently seized 21 pounds of methamphetamine concealed inside an air bag compartment and a front seat cushion, 25 pounds concealed behind the rear seat of a car, and 27 pounds from the gas tank of a pickup truck.
Traffickers frequently use couriers; the drug may be hand-carried or concealed on the body (body-packed). In two incidents at the San Ysidro POE in December 1999, a resident flying from San Diego to New Orleans attempted to smuggle 2 kilograms taped to his body. In an incident at the Tecate POE in April 2000, a pedestrian tried to enter with 8 pounds strapped around his waist.
Mexican polydrug organizations, usually working in conjunction with middlemen, are the major suppliers of methamphetamine at the wholesale level in San Diego and Imperial Counties. Hispanic street gangs and independent dealers and groups (Caucasian and Hispanic) are the main distributors at the street level. The two-county area is also home to independent laboratory operators who produce small amounts of methamphetamine for their own consumption and for sale.
Most of the methamphetamine found in the district is produced in Mexico. The border cities in San Diego and Imperial Counties continue to be used as methamphetamine transshipment points to U.S. locales and the smuggling of methamphetamine continues to increase. The primary sources of supply are Mexican DTOs such as the Arellano-Felix Organization, the Amezcua-Contreras Organization, and the Miguel Angel Caro-Quintero Organization. According to a 1998 U.S. Attorney report, Mexican organizations have come to dominate wholesale methamphetamine trafficking in the United States because they have ready access to precursor chemicals in Mexico, they control well-established drug distribution networks, and they produce large quantities of methamphetamine on a regular basis.
At the wholesale level, Mexican DTOs normally work through middlemen who use known dealers to distribute the methamphetamine at the street level. Most of the drug distribution groups at the wholesale and retail levels are polydrug in nature.
Responses to a survey conducted by NIN indicated that
approximately 54 criminal organizations transport and distribute
methamphetamine and 14 traffic precursor chemicals in the Southern
California and Mexico Border Regions. They also identified 76 polydrug
organizations or groups, some of which most likely are involved in
The primary retail distributors of methamphetamine in the district are Mexican criminals and Mexican-American criminal groups. Local independent dealers, street gangs, Caucasians, and biker gangs also distribute the drug. The Chula Vista Police Department states that Mexicans, as well as Caucasians and biker gangs, distribute methamphetamine in its area. DEA reports that the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club is establishing a chapter in Tijuana; however, a working relationship between the Hells Angels and Mexican DTOs has not been confirmed.
According to the San Diego Sheriff's Department, the dominant distributors of methamphetamine in San Diego County are Caucasians with connections to the Arellano-Felix Organization. The San Diego Police Department describes a layered drug distribution network whereby Mexican DTOs deal with middlemen who then work with known dealers--from gangs to individuals--who handle street sales. Most of the drug dealing at the street level is polydrug.
Another criminal influence that impacts methamphetamine distribution in Southern California is the Mexican Mafia, a prison-based gang also known as "La Eme." La Eme controls a portion of the drug distribution in Southern California through control of street gangs like the Logan Heights gang. La Eme also has ties to the prison-based gang Aryan Brotherhood that, in turn, has ties to outlaw motorcycle gangs. It is believed that Aryan Brotherhood is linked to the methamphetamine trade through its association with these groups. Other street gangs distributing methamphetamine in the San Diego area are the Vista Home Boys, Vario Fallbrook Locos, Imperials, Lakeside Gangsters, Colonia Eden Gardens, Vario Encitas, Legend Kings, Casa De Oro Bloods (African-American and Hispanic), Spring Valley Locos, and Vario San Marcos. These gangs are also involved in the distribution of other drugs, including marijuana and heroin.
The North County Regional Task Force in San Diego reports that street gangs account for about 50 percent of the drug distribution in the county. The major Hispanic gangs were identified as Pasole, Center Street Logos, Mesa Logos operating in Oceanside, and the Vista Home Boys in Vista. In Carlsbad, the major gangs are the Carlsbad Logos, South Los, and Vario San Marcos. Also mentioned were the Diablos and Westside Gang in Escondido and the Fallbrook Logos in Fallbrook. Drug distribution is the gangs' primary business, and although they distribute all drugs, methamphetamine is predominant. The Task Force further reports that all Hispanic gangs owe their allegiance to the Mexican Mafia (La Eme). Graffiti displaying various Spanish gang logos is usually followed by Sur 13: the thirteenth letter of the alphabet is M, "eme" in Spanish. The Crips, an African-American street gang, also distributes methamphetamine in addition to the usual crack cocaine, according to Task Force reporting.
The Imperial County Task Force identified 34 street gangs with more than 850 members. Most of the Hispanic street gangs are involved in polydrug distribution that includes methamphetamine, heroin, and marijuana. One gang, Chicali, is a prison-based gang. Chicali is linked to and controls some of the Hispanic street gangs that distribute drugs.
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