Meth Production Reaches 'Epidemic' Level on Coast
By Rene Sanchez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 25, 2001; Page A03
LOS ANGELES – They stormed in after midnight, kicking down doors of homes and businesses around this county's desert fringe. More than 100 federal agents and local detectives took part in the raids, and by the time the sun came up they had nabbed yet another gang of suspected methamphetamine traffickers.
The raids this week culminated an 18-month investigation dubbed "Operation Silent Thunder" that led to the arrest of nearly 300 people on drug or weapons charges. Hundreds of firearms and explosives have been seized. More than a dozen large makeshift laboratories for manufacturing methamphetamine have been closed and quantities of the drug worth more than $2 million worth of the drug – usually sold on the street in small cheap quantities amounts of powder or rock – have been confiscated.
Law enforcement authorities acknowledge that the results are another sign of just how pervasive and sophisticated the illicit methamphetamine trade has become in many parts of the state. Once casually run, mostly by outlaw biker gangs, methamphetamine production is now a tightly managed big business, concentrated in California's hills and deserts and its vast, rural Central Valley.
So much methamphetamine is produced in California that federal officials now consider the state a "source nation" for the highly addictive drug, which is also known as speed, ice or crystal. Meth labs are flourishing more than ever in other western states such as Arizona, Nevada and Washington.
According to the Drug Enforcement Administration statistics, about 2,700 meth labs were discovered in California in 1999. The state with the second-highest total, Washington, had about 600. Arizona had nearly 400.
After this week's raids, authorities said they were confident that they had crushed the last remnants of an elaborate criminal enterprise. But they said there would be many more to contend with.
"We think we've put a huge dent in this organization," Lt. Ron Shreeves of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department said after the raids. "But is someone else going to fill its shoes? Absolutely. There's too much money involved."
Federal narcotics officials say that use of the drug across the country has doubled in the past seven years. Much of the market, they say, is controlled by criminal groups based in Mexico that use California migrant workers to cook and transport the drug from shacks and trailers in the desert or barns in the farm fields of the state's agricultural midsection.
As the operations have become more organized – some meth labs operate every day, authorities say – production of the drug has greatly increased.
Ron Gravitt, the clandestine laboratory coordinator for the California Department of Justice, calls the state's methamphetamine problem "an epidemic." Law enforcement agencies in California are shutting down more than 2,000 meth labs each year, he said. And in some parts of the state, the tally has doubled or tripled over the past decade.
"Right now, we're just inundated with meth," Gravitt said.
California will spend $30 million this year to crack down on the methamphetamine trade, but just finding meth labs, some of which produce 50 pounds of the drug a week, is often difficult because of their remote locations because they are remote.
Jose Martinez, a spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Administration DEA's office in Los Angeles, said that those sparsely populated areas are ideal places for drug organizations to set up operations. "Because it's wide open space, a person can go out there and cook and it's not easy to detect," he said.
When law enforcement agents make a bust, they usually catch only front-line workers in the trade who know little about the larger criminal operation for which they work. Those workers, and the labs, are often quickly replaced.
Officials say the proliferation of meth labs is also creating serious environmental problems. The state is spending millions of dollars to clean up the toxic chemical waste dumped in water or spilled on soil during or after the often-crude manufacture of the drug.
The raids this week followed months of undercover investigation and targeted methamphetamine trafficking in the Antelope Valley on the eastern end of Los Angeles County, a high desert region that long has been a hub of the meth trade.
At a news conference this week, Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca said the suspects are members of a drug ring that distributed methamphetamine primarily in the West. He also said the organization is linked to Mexican drug traffickers and white supremacist groups in Southern California.
Agents seized a half-million dollars in cash and more than 100 high-powered weapons in the early morning raids, which took place at nearly two dozen homes and small businesses in the area. The arsenal included assault rifles with bayonets and a grenade launcher.
Authorities said that some suspects had tattoos of Nazi swastikas insignias and belong to a local gang called the "Untouchables."
"They were stockpiling a huge cache of weapons along with drugs," Shreeves said. "This was a sophisticated organization."
He said that investigators believe that nearly all of those arrested this week belonged to one of six drug distribution "cells" that are part of a large methamphetamine trafficking group. The other five cells, he said, also have been dismantled by the undercover operation.
"We think this was the last and most dangerous one," Shreeves said.
To avoid capture, some members of the alleged drug ring installed video surveillance equipment outside of their homes, spoke in code on telephones, and stayed in constant contact with each other about police activity in their neighborhood, authorities said.
"We knew we had to go after them all at once," Shreeves said. Most of the methamphetamine seized in the raids was pure, he said, and would have been quite addictive had it been sold on the street.
bybioSpecial correspondent Jeff Adler contributed
to this report.
© 2001 The Washington Post Company