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

The bottom line:

Meth is a bigger problem in Arizona than ever.

A problem that's overloading our criminal justice system.

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.

A problem that's tearing apart families and stressing the state's health, social service and child protection agencies.

A problem that has yet to be met with public policy anywhere close to resembling a solution.

As policymakers flounder, local, state and federal law enforcement officers try to stem the flow of the drug first into the country and state, then into the Valley, then into the neighborhoods where meth houses sometimes still blight local communities.

They are winning the local battle on the labs.

But they are losing the now international war against meth.


Five years ago, the methamphetamine you'd find on the streets of Phoenix likely had been made in a bathtub down the street.

Now, it's likely being made at a sprawling compound at least a thousand miles south in Sinaloa or Michoacán.

For decades, the wooded and mountainous areas there have been a staging area for cocaine coming up from South America.

It's the perfect haven for major drug operations.

Like the mountains of many Third World countries, it is ruled by the law of the jungle. And over time, the poor and dispossessed there have come to see local traffickers as heroes.

And why not? For more than a century, the region has been ignored by a more-often corrupt federal government. If a local boy makes it big in the drug trade, he very often funnels a hefty portion back into the community. The fine church or school in this region is more often a gift from a local narco trafficker than good work by the government.

With the pipeline in place from the narcotics trade, it was easy for the Sinaloan Cowboys and their neighbors to make the switch to meth. All they needed were a few chemists and a steady supply of precursor drugs.

The cooks were easy to assemble. You can find recipes with a quick Google search. Or passed on from a fellow tweaker. The primary ingredient, pseudoephedrine tablets, is readily available -- by the barrel.

"It's coming from China, from Hong Kong, primarily," says Steve Comber, the assistant special agent in charge at the Phoenix field office of the DEA. "All you need is a broker with an international license. Then it's shipped in from China and then diverted to the labs."

Mexican labs will create as much as 70 pounds of crystal meth per batch, putting their American counterparts to shame. An average meth lab in Phoenix will make an ounce. "It's enough for themselves and 10 of their closest friends," says Phoenix PD's Don Sherrard. "That's what most Beavis-and-Butt-head labs are."

Then the drug is sent to the border in ever-more-creative vehicles.

Sometimes it's hidden in fruit bound for the United States. Very often it's taken to a custom body shop and built into a car or truck (traffickers have even modified eight-cylinder engines into six-bangers with two cylinders for drug storage).

Increasingly, U.S. drug-enforcement officials say, traffickers are using undocumented immigrants as drug pack mules.

Often, such deals go down in the Sonoran town of Altar, the farming village southwest of Nogales that has morphed into the primary staging area for Mexican nationals hoping to hike across the desert into Arizona.

"It's just a simple deal there," says the DEA's Molesa. "[The traffickers tell undocumented immigrants:] You carry this backpack, we'll pay for your coyote.

"There is 350 miles of continuous border here and all sorts of roads connecting us to Mexico," Molesa says. "It's perfect for traffickers."

And it's not just geography that makes Arizona and its Mexican sister-state of Sonora a great pipeline for meth.

It's the professionalism of the drug traffickers along the route.

For years now, drug officials say, the Arizona drug corridor has been controlled by what is likely one of the most peaceful and businesslike drug consortiums in Mexico's history. While both the Juárez pipeline to the east and the Tijuana pipeline to the west are fraught with sometimes spectacular violence, the Mexican drug lords along the pipeline to Phoenix work with chamber-of-commerce efficiency.

"We've generally been lucky that way because they are smart enough to know that murders get people fired up," Molesa says.

That luck may not hold out.


On a late Saturday afternoon in mid-October -- a typical Saturday, according to border and customs officers -- about 350 vehicles are inching north toward Grand Avenue, the main drag of Nogales, Arizona.

Five lanes of cars stop and go through entry wells as officers inspect undercarriages with mirrors and peer into back-seat windows.

Here, drugs in the meth pipeline come to a screeching stop.

Here, if you're running the stuff, it's time to start acting.

"If it doesn't look good, we search it. We're looking for something in our mental files," says Richard Gill, the chief customs and border protection officer at the Dennis DeConcini port of entry on Grand.

Such as wild eyes, nervousness, a slip in the story.

Many of the mules, Gill says, are "highly religious people, looking for protection, something to calm themselves." Often, a mule is carrying a photo of the Virgin Mary of Guadalupe, maybe on a keychain or in his or her wallet or purse.

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