San Diego Cracks Down on Mexican Meth, Seizures Expected to Surpass 2012 Records

BY Jill Replogle and Fronteras  August 6, 2013 at 1:53 PM EDT


More than 70 percent of methamphetamine illegally trafficked into the U.S. passes through San Diego ports of entry. The amount of meth seized at the border has increased dramatically over the past five years. And meth use is also up in that county. As Jill Replogle from the Fronteras Desk reports, that’s despite laws in both countries designed to crack down on the drug. Video by Katie Euphrat/KPBS.

During the last five years, three times more methamphetamine was seized at San Diego ports of entry than all other U.S.-Mexico border crossings combined. And meth seizures this year are on track to far surpass 2012.

That’s despite laws in both countries designed to crackdown on the drug.

San Diego has a long and troubled history with meth. During WWII, meth spread among many American service members stationed in the Pacific theater.

When they came back to the U.S. — primarily through San Diego — they brought their addictions with them and they helped spawn a domestic meth industry.

“Gangs, biker gangs usually controlled the meth production and distribution, and Mexico used to provide the precursors,” said Joe Garcia, Deputy Special Agent in Charge for ICE Homeland Security Investigations in San Diego. Precursors are the chemical ingredients that go into meth.

In the 1990s, San Diego became known as the meth capital of the country.

Rampant abuse led to several high profile crimes, like the man who hijacked a tank and drove it down the highway, and the couple who scalded their four-year-old niece to death in a bathtub.

The damage caused by the highly addictive drug spawned a crackdown on domestic meth production. With continued demand and restricted supply, organized crime saw a big opportunity, Garcia said.

“Especially the Sinaloa cartel has looked at this and said, ‘Why are we the middle man? Why aren’t we producing this ourselves?’” he said.

Now, more than 80 percent of the meth seized in the U.S. is made in Mexico, Garcia said. That’s despite Mexico’s own attempts to curb its production.

Much of that meth comes through San Diego in part because it’s home to the busiest land crossing between the U.S. and Mexico: San Ysidro. More legal traffic tends to come with more illegal traffic, but history and geography also play a role.

“One of the major criminal organizations working with meth has historically been based in the Pacific Coast area of Mexico, the Colima region,” said David Shirk, an expert on Mexican drug trafficking at the University of San Diego.

In the late 1990s, the so-called Colima cartel established a major meth trafficking route north, 1,500 miles up the coast to the California border. Now, the powerful Sinaloa cartel controls the majority of the meth trade.

“So it makes a lot of sense that this would be moving through San Diego,” Shirk said, “through the newly established, or newly consolidated networks of the Sinaloa cartel.”

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) reports a 300 percent rise in methamphetamine seizures at San Diego’s ports of entry since 2008.

Most meth comes across the border in passenger cars, in ever more elaborate hiding places.

On a recent morning at San Ysidro, CBP agents called in a mechanic to detach and slice open the gas tank of a white Jeep Cherokee. Inside, they pulled out 23 packages of marijuana, some of them soaked in gasoline.

In all, the stash weighed 52 lbs.

At the San Ysidro Port of Entry, U.S. Customs and Border Protection found nearly 53 pounds of marijuana hidden inside a car’s gas tank. Video by Katie Euphrat and John Rosman/KPBS

Heightened border security has made smuggling riskier, but the profits are extraordinary, said Linda Frakes, Assistant U.S. Attorney in San Diego.

“We’ve had expert testimony in our cases where the range is, at a conservative level, between $14,000 and $19,000 a pound when it comes into San Diego,” Frakes said. “And that price pretty much doubles from what a pound is in Mexico to what a pound is in the United States just by crossing the port of entry.”

It’s very difficult to know just how much Mexican meth is making it through San Diego ports of entry, but public health workers say meth use in San Diego County is on the rise in the last few years.

Border authorities think part of the reason drug seizures have increased is because they’re doing a better job of detecting drugs.

The long lines at San Ysidro give drug sniffing dogs time to weave in and out of the cars and alert officers to hidden stashes. Powerful x-ray machines can spot packages hidden in secret panels and gas tanks.

Still, Garcia is realistic about authorities’ chances of finally beating the traffickers.

“They’re not going to go away, they’re going to do something else,” Garcia said. “But we’re trying to get them to go away from meth because meth just ravages any user.”

This story was reported by the Fronteras: Changing Americas Desk, a multimedia collaboration among seven public radio stations. It is led by KJZZ in Phoenix and KPBS in San Diego and funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting as part of its Local Journalism Center initiative.