FOURTH IN A SERIES: Once the drug of choice for outlaw motorcycle gangs, methamphetamine is now a major moneymaker for Mexican drug cartels. At one time, it was mostly “cooked” locally in seedy motel rooms or trailer parks using over-the-counter cold remedies. Now, law enforcement estimates that about 90 percent of the meth consumed in the United States comes across the border. The drug can be smoked, snorted, injected or taken orally. “We’re seeing meth dealers go after kids as young as 13 on social media,” said APD Deputy Chief Eric Garcia. “That’s who they’re marketing to.”
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Miguel Rangel-Arce, 36, and brother Luis Rangel-Arce, 44, set up shop west of Farmington on the Navajo reservation in 2015. They were there to make money selling methamphetamine supplied by the Sinaloa Cartel.
They rented a house and recruited locals, both Navajo and Anglo, to sell the drug on the reservation and in the neighborhoods of Farmington and Bloomfield. It was a tightly run ring with five retail dealers handling direct sales to users.
But the Rangel brothers, both from Mexico by way of Phoenix, came to the attention of federal investigators because of an increase in crime and use of methamphetamine in the Shiprock area on the Navajo nation.
In 2016, the two men and others were arrested for selling methamphetamine directly to undercover officers. Authorities seized more than 2½ pounds of the drug worth a minimum of $150,000, along with 10 firearms, during the arrests.
“Methamphetamine continues to have a devastating impact on Native American families and communities,” said U.S. Attorney Damon P. Martinez.
Martinez said the same thing a year earlier when law enforcement in the southern part of the state arrested Carlos Tafoya and 34 others in December 2015 for trafficking methamphetamine on the Mescalero Apache Reservation near Ruidoso.
The Mescalero Apache arrests also followed an increase in violent crime attributed to methamphetamine use on the reservation, including a horrific assault on a young girl by two teenage boys who were high on meth.
Joseph Ray Mendiola, 35, of Roswell, was the focus of another investigation that led to federal and state charges against 41 people. The investigation involved the FBI, DEA, State Police and local law enforcement agencies.
Investigators seized more than 16 pounds of methamphetamine from Mendiola and his associates in Roswell.
It’s the same story over and over. High-quality, inexpensive methamphetamine supplied by Mexican cartels is a problem from the reservations to the oil patch, from cities to rural New Mexico.
Meth is a highly addictive stimulant, and the crime that accompanies it is often violent – from the shooting death of a police officer in Rio Rancho to the brutal assaults on young girls in Albuquerque and the Mescalero Reservation.
Call it meth, crystal, ice, speed or crank.
A pound of it can sell for as low as $7,200, but the average price per pound in New Mexico is around $8,000. That translates into big profits as it is broken down for users into envelopes of $25, $50 or $100.
Dealers sell to users, or “tweakers.”
Whatever name you want to use for methamphetamine, the statistics point to serious problems. Among them:
• In 2008, there were 23 overdose deaths in New Mexico attributed to methamphetamine. By 2014, there were 111 meth overdose deaths in the state.
• In 2007, a gram of methamphetamine was selling for almost $300 and the purity was about 40 percent. By 2014, the price had dropped, on a national average, to around $70 a gram, and it had an average purity of more than 90 percent.
• In 2010, federal agents seized just over 4,000 kilograms of methamphetamine along the Mexican border in the Southwest. By 2015, the amount seized increased to 16,282 kilograms. Meanwhile, the number of methamphetamine laboratories busted by law enforcement in the United States dropped more than 50 percent from 2010 to 2015, and most of those “laboratories” were capable of producing only 2 ounces or less.
The reason for the shift: About 90 percent of the methamphetamine consumed in the United States is made in Mexico.
“They are controlling more of the distribution line, the entire line from the manufacture … to the actual distribution,” said Will Glaspy, Drug Enforcement Administration special agent in charge, El Paso Division.
According to the DEA, traffickers employ various techniques in smuggling methamphetamine. They include human couriers, commercial flights, parcel services and commercial buses. But traffickers most commonly transport methamphetamine through U.S. border crossings in passenger vehicles with hidden compartments.
Several cartels are shipping methamphetamine in a liquid form to smuggle into the United States in soft drink cans and bottles. Once in the United States, the methamphetamine is transformed into a powder through standard chemical filtration methods.
Like other drugs, much of the meth that arrives in Albuquerque doesn’t stay here. The city is a transit point for drugs going on to Denver, Chicago and elsewhere.
The compartmentalization of the cartel operations and the use of independent contractors make it difficult for law enforcement to track supply lines.
“I don’t see a lot of people on this side of the border that have complete knowledge of the whole distribution chain,” Glaspy said.
One person picks up the methamphetamine in Culiacán, Sinaloa, and takes it to Juárez. Someone else smuggles it through the port of entry into El Paso to a stash house in Albuquerque. It then gets moved by another courier to a stash house in Denver or a city in the Midwest. Then a different person will pick it up and take it to a distributor.
“And that is a lot of what we’re seeing in the United States is that the Mexicans are looking to, well, they’re controlling more of the market,” Glaspy said.
As with other illegal drugs, the Sinaloa and Juárez cartels are major players in the meth racket.
But competition for control of methamphetamine production in Mexico has always been heated and a new power player – the New Generation Jalisco Cartel – has emerged recently.
The first Mexican trafficking organization to start producing the drug on an industrial scale was based in the Mexican state of Colima and was called the Colima Cartel.
Founded by Jesus Amezcua Contreras in 1988, the Colima Cartel replaced outlaw motorcycle gangs in the United States in producing methamphetamine, then partnered with the biker gangs for distribution.
During the 1990s and early 2000s, the Colima Cartel controlled the importation of chemicals from Europe – later China and India – used to make methamphetamine. The Colima Cartel then sold its “surplus” to the Sinaloa Cartel.
But the rise of the New Generation Jalisco Cartel, in the bordering state of Jalisco, has led to fierce fighting in the state of Colima.
The New Generation Jalisco Cartel is the newest of the six major cartels operating in Mexico.
Nemesio “El Mencho” Oseguera Cervantes, who now heads the New Generation syndicate, was convicted in federal court in San Francisco in 1994 and sentenced to three years in prison for conspiracy to distribute heroin. He was deported to Mexico after his release from prison and worked as a police officer in the state of Jalisco, where the Milenio Cartel was active producing methamphetamine.
The Milenio Cartel and the Colima Cartel were then partners in the Sinaloa Cartel. But in 2010, one of the leaders of the Milenio Cartel died and another was arrested by Mexican federal law enforcement. That led to a fight over control of narcotics trafficking in the states of Jalisco and Michoacan.
“El Mencho” came out on top, heading what is now called the New Generation Jalisco Cartel.
He set about expanding the cartel’s operations and took on rivals like Los Zetas and the Knights Templar.
That expansion was noted for its violence, willingness to kill local and state government officials and taking on federal police in ambushes and gunfights, including shooting down helicopters.
In 2016, the Sinaloa Cartel began sending men and arms to aid the Colima Cartel in its fight with the New Generation Jalisco Cartel, which smuggles drugs into the United States through Tijuana, Juárez and Nuevo Laredo.
It is considered a major player in methamphetamine trafficking but also is involved in heroin, cocaine and marijuana smuggling.
The cartels import chemicals used to manufacture methamphetamine from India, China and the Philippines. The chemicals are delivered to Mexico’s western ports including Manzanillo in the state of Colima.
The Colima Cartel and Sinaloa Cartel and the remnants of the Beltran Leyva organization also manufacture and traffic methamphetamine, using ports like Guaymas to bring in the chemicals from overseas. The Juárez Cartel gets it supplies from other cartels, primarily New Generation Jalisco.
Unlike most other illegal drugs, methamphetamine is a synthetic, manufactured in a laboratory.
It does not rely on a plant as its main source of chemicals like heroin and cocaine, and production isn’t affected by drought or floods.
And there are a lot of ways to make meth.
One way involves the use of the common cold remedy pseudoephedrine or ephedrine as a precursor chemical. Making methamphetamine using pseudoephedrine is fairly simple, and the U.S. government in the 1990s passed tough laws and regulations governing its production and distribution.
As a result, production began to head south in the 1990s to Mexico, where pseudoephedrine was easy to get. Around 2005, Mexico imported 80 metric tons of ephedrine from China when the country’s basic need was 4 metric tons.
Mexico, at the urging of the U.S., began restricting imports of pseudoephedrine, and China began restricting exports.
That caused the cartels to move to more complex manufacturing techniques that revolve around the chemical P-2-P, prompting the United States and United Nations to restrict production, exportation and importation of P-2-P around the world.
Unfortunately, there are lots of ways to make P-2-P, and most of those involve very common industrial chemicals and solvents – a lot of them considered poisonous.
It is difficult to control international trade in these chemicals, because they are used to make everything from aspirin to pressure-treated wood.
In 2010, the Mexican government seized 110 methamphetamine laboratories, and most were using some form of the P-2-P method of making methamphetamine.
Since 2010, most of the methamphetamine tested by DEA laboratories has been made using the P-2-P method.
As an extra bonus to our readers, Mike Gallagher provides additional background and insights about the New Generation Jalisco Cartel in a video interview.