The New Boss

Police have shut down most of the meth labs in Phoenix, but now the drug is a big import from Mexico -- cheap, pure and more plentiful than ever

You would have thought cops were raiding the stronghold of Pablo Escobar.

Early on a warm August morning, 38 Phoenix cops, many in black fatigues with automatic weapons, stormed the home of Daniel Watkins, looking for drugs.

Instead, after three hours of dissecting the house in northeast Phoenix, all they found were three handguns and a couple of naked photos of Watkins' girlfriend.

Phoenix police book suspected meth cook Daniel Watkins outside his home, where cops seized two ounces of crystal and the makings of a small-time meth lab.
Peter Scanlon
Phoenix police book suspected meth cook Daniel Watkins outside his home, where cops seized two ounces of crystal and the makings of a small-time meth lab.
Mexican nationals at a Nogales port of entry wait for their vehicles to pass inspections by U.S. border officers. More than 1,200 pounds of meth have been seized at the Mexico-Arizona border so far this year.
Joe Watson
Mexican nationals at a Nogales port of entry wait for their vehicles to pass inspections by U.S. border officers. More than 1,200 pounds of meth have been seized at the Mexico-Arizona border so far this year.

Details

Later in the day, police finally dug up two ounces of low-grade methamphetamine and just enough parts of a meth lab to hit Watkins with charges of manufacturing with intent to sell.

Not much for more than 200 man-hours in police work, not including the four-month investigation that got them to Watkins' house in the first place.

Not at all like back in the heyday of clandestine meth labs in Phoenix, in 1999 and 2000, when big busts were making big headlines almost every week. Indeed, over the past six years, Arizona has dropped from fourth highest in the country in the number of clandestine meth labs to the eighth lowest.

Phoenix reached an all-time high of 164 meth-lab busts in 2000. So far in 2005, that number is less than 30.

But let's not declare victory in the war on drugs. The meth you can get in Phoenix today is purer, cheaper and more plentiful than ever, because at the same time local labs were declining, Arizona became the leading pipeline for Mexican-made methamphetamine into the United States.

Phoenix police aren't finding many big meth labs to bust because they're not in Phoenix anymore.

Instead, they are in the Mexican states of Sinaloa or Michoacán, where bigger, higher-tech, more cost-effective labs create a methamphetamine that lands on the streets of Phoenix as a more powerful and cheaper drug than ever.

With the high quality Mexican meth now on our streets, you can stay wired for most of the day for as little as $20, a fraction of what it'll take to keep you high on cocaine.

More so than any drug before it, methamphetamine seems to be generating into a perfect narco storm.

Meth, like NASCAR, ain't just for rednecks anymore. Now that it's clean like cocaine and readily available -- and far cheaper -- it's the drug of choice for hillbilly and hipster alike.

Shot into your bloodstream, meth makes you wildly awake, on top of your game, ready -- at least initially -- for sex.

At first, it seems like the perfect drug for play, for work, for everything -- particularly if you're a long-distance trucker or a working mom. Indeed, it's the drug that lets you work and still have your play because you don't need to sleep. And good luck kicking the habit.

As such, it's also the perfect drug for crime.

Because you always need more. Because you're amped up and ready for a fight, 24/7. Because consequences and fear aren't part of the equation.

As whiskey and laudanum fueled the outlaws of 19th-century Arizona, crank is fueling their 21st-century brethren.

And as police and health-care officials know, the more perfect the drug, the harder the fight to stop it.

The stranglehold is tight. As Mexican meth flows through Phoenix, it is wreaking havoc.

Consider:

• Meth is directly associated with increased crime rates.

According to an Arizona Criminal Justice Commission report published in July, the state continues to rank first in the country in overall crime rates, with no other state dealing with more property crimes and auto thefts than Arizona; murder and rape rates are also up.

And extensive computer-assisted research by New Times reveals that meth-related deaths in Maricopa County have gone up dramatically since the beginning of 2004 (see accompanying story). Those deaths include homicides, suicides, car accidents, overdoses, heart attacks and hemorrhages.

A 2003 voluntary study found that about 40 percent of Maricopa County jail inmates tested positive for meth. Compare that to figures from 1990 (about 7 percent) and 1999 (17 percent).

"In almost every type of crime, we're seeing an increased correlation between meth and the crimes themselves," says Don Sherrard, the Phoenix Police Department meth-lab supervisor.

Phoenix officials have done no work to statistically correlate meth use to specific crimes, although Sherrard and others say that, anecdotally, they know there's a connection.

But Tucson Police Captain David Neri has done exhaustive research that shows such direct links. He has examined crime patterns in neighborhoods in Tucson and linked the crimes to meth. Earlier this year, Neri told an Arizona legislative committee that meth is linked to 56 percent of fraud cases and 27 percent of auto thefts.

One crime where the connection has been clearly established is identity theft. In 2004, Arizona topped the nation in reports of stolen identities, and the trend continues this year. Dan Drake, an assistant U.S. attorney in Phoenix, estimates that more than 95 percent of those cases were linked to meth.

• Meth is putting children in danger.

State officials estimate that more than 90 percent of Arizona Child Protective Services cases are associated with meth use. Between 2000 and 2002, about a third of children removed from homes with meth labs tested positive for meth, according to the Arizona Attorney General's Office. The AG also reports that children from homes where meth is used are at a greater risk for developmental delays and are more likely to have been abused or neglected than other children.

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