Meth has a cost/profit ratio that would engender envy in almost
any business. Before it's sold, a pound of meth is usually "stepped
on," or diluted with another agent. Diluting meth increases
production: A pound of pure meth can become 4 pounds, and a $2,500
investment can become $20,000 in two days' time.
When you make a lot of meth, it can bring in big money, a fact
not lost on some of the most powerful members of the worldwide drug
In the early 1990s, drug agents reported that drug groups based
in the Mexican state of Michoacan were overwhelming the meth trade
by flooding the market with a superior and cheaper product. Biker
groups, which once controlled the trade in California, were vastly
outnumbered and unable to put up a challenge. Speaking in Fresno
in April, Robert Brady, a member of the State Department who studies
drug trafficking, mocked the bikers "for letting outsiders
come in and take over. It would be like some outsiders going to
Medellin, Cali or Bogota and taking over the cocaine trade."
Indeed, most of the meth in the Central Valley -- and most of the
meth in America -- isn't made by Beavis and Butt-head, cooked in
a coffeepot or strained through someone's kidneys.
It's made and distributed by loosely organized "families"
in California who have roots in Mexican organized crime groups.
Some groups operate merely as investment bankers, bankrolling operations
for a percentage of the profits, or they exact a price for meth
ingredients smuggled into the state through their territories in
"The dominant 'families' in meth in California [one based in the San Jose area, the other in Orange County] aren't truly
organized crime groups in the sense that there is in the Mafia,"
says Ron Gravitt, chief of the state Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement's
clandestine lab unit. "There is no real hierarchy with them.
... The standard is they are tied together by familial and geographic
ties in Mexico.
"It's our belief, based on our experience in the field and
talking to other states, that 90 percent of the meth manufactured
in this country is manufactured by Mexican national drug organizations,"
says Gravitt, who has been fighting the drug trade for 13 years.
"The majority of that is being manufactured in California,
and some is being manufactured in Mexico and smuggled into California
and then shipped throughout the U.S."
Meth became attractive to Mexican cartels in the early 1990s. Groups
such as the Amezcua Contreras cartel in Guadalajara and the Arellano
Felix brothers in Tijuana already dominated marijuana and had joined
with Colombian drug lords to distribute cocaine. But because coca
leaves, the key ingredient in cocaine, aren't grown in Mexico, they
had to split profits with the Colombians who controlled production.
With meth, they soon figured out, they could control every aspect,
from manufacture to sale.
"From a business standpoint, they came up with a brilliant
idea," says Guy Hargreaves, a DEA special agent and meth expert.
"Methamphetamine allowed them to cut out the South American
percentage. They put meth in with their cocaine shipments, and people
developed a taste for it because it lasts longer . They can make
it themselves in the United States, and they don't have to pay millions
of dollars in overhead for planes and pilots and boats and smuggling
bribes. All they need is $10,000 in chemicals, and they can make
$100,000 worth of meth."
routinely and randomly search alleged meth-rich neighborhoods
in Michoacan, Mexico, in an effort to more aggressively fight
the drug trade.
Bee Photographer- Craig Kohlruss
They make far more than $100,000 worth. Precisely how much is anyone's
guess, and law enforcement officials refuse to make one, at least
not for the record.
"I could tell you that we bust maybe 25 percent of the big
labs," says one federal agent, "but I could be way off.
If we do, that means there are 800 super labs making at least 10
pounds . . . at $5,000 a pound . . . well, do the math."
So let's do the math: 800 super labs at 10 pounds each at $5,000
a pound equals $40 million. Assume they cook 10 pounds a month --
a conservative estimate -- and you have $480 million a year. Then
factor in that $5,000 a pound is the wholesale price, and that grams
sell for $90 each. There are 28 grams in an ounce, and 16 ounces
in a pound . . . and it's just a guess, but it sounds like a multi-billion-dollar
business the size of California's retail book and record, florist
or jewelry industries.
To keep the industry booming, meth manufacturers need supplies,
workers and cooking locations, and from a drug lord's perspective,
the Central Valley is a prime place in which to operate. Mexican
operators can blend into the large Latino population. The Valley
offers a rural setting for manufacturing without drawing attention,
and yet it's close to major population centers and transportation
routes. Chronically high jobless rates ensure a ready work force
for what amounts to highly lucrative, if exceedingly dangerous,
Big-time Valley meth makers run efficient operations. They control their own supplies, such as red phosphorus,
hydriodic acid, iodine, Freon and hydrogen chloride gas. Though
many are either illegal or closely monitored in the United States,
they are widely and legally available worldwide, and big syndicates
have established pipelines to gather and transport them.
In the 1990s, the Amezcua Contreras cartel established a network
that included suppliers from the Czech Republic, Germany, Switzerland,
Italy, India, Thailand and Japan. Lax chemical controls in Mexico
and Canada make obtaining chemicals relatively easy. In Los Angeles
and Oakland, some chemical companies provide supplies to meth manufacturers
through elaborate schemes that make sales appear legitimate.
And they control a network of workers: runners, chemical manufacturers
and meth cooks. Often a family operation will specialize in one
chemical and deal with a chemical broker who deals with specialists.
Specialists often deal only with the organizer. The organizer orders
chemicals, usually by phone, and runners transport the goods to
a cook site.
Depending on the operation, a cook can do it with one helper or
10. Larger labs try to limit the margin for error by the cooks,
or "mopes," by prepackaging ingredients in premeasured,
The average Mexican national lab, says the BNE's Gravitt, makes
a minimum of 20 pounds and as much as 100 in one cook cycle. Sometimes
they do one cook and then move. Or they may cook at a site for a
couple of years.
That variation aside, one common ingredient in many Mexican national
meth labs is the origin of the chef: the state of Michoacan.
The young man is nervous during interrogation.
The detective senses it. The story just doesn't add up. Why would
anyone pay someone $1,000 just to drive three men from Long Beach
to Porterville in Tulare County?
"I'll tell you this right now, once you tell me the truth
you're gonna feel like a man," he tells the suspect.
"All I want to do is go home to my wife and kids," he
The suspect, who claims he was on his way to visit his uncle in
Fresno when he was caught up in a meth bust, begins to cry.
"Why are you treating me like a criminal?"
A long minute passes. Backed into a corner, the suspect gives something
up: He was paid to bring the two men up "to cook."
"To cook what?"
"I don't know. They just say to cook."
This dance is about to come to an end.
"You told me you are from Michoacan. What part of Michoacan?"
Now the detective knows for sure. Javier Ochoa is part of the meth
It's 45 minutes before midnight, and traffic is heavy on the sidewalks
of Apatzingan. Bumpy, paved streets in the city's center are lined
with hundreds of narrow storefront shops selling everything from
new clothes to washing machines to caskets. Sidewalks are crowded
A dressmaker watches the foot traffic. "I love living in Apatzingan,"
Rosalba Conchola says. "It's full of life. It's not dangerous,
unlike the United States."
Music, Mexican and American, blares from passing cars, many of
them new- or late-model American pickups or BMWs. There are obvious
signs of money here, but there are no obvious signs as to why. It's
simply understood. The chief products in this gritty farming town
are mangoes, papayas, watermelons and meth. And a steady supply
of meth makers.
Like some rap music in urban America, much of the popular music
in Michoacan romanticizes the drug dealer. Sidewalk booth vendors
in Apatzingan do a good business selling "Druga Corredos,"
the Mexican equivalent of gangsta rap. One song begins: "I
am here across the border in America, and I have drugs for you .
Apatzingan anchors the "Michoacan Trail," a pipeline
that moves north through Guadalajara to Tijuana, pumping not only
the product, but the people who cook it, across the California border
and into the Central Valley.
"Yes, it is true," says police officer Ramon Lopez-Valencia
as he slowly shakes his head. "The young people want to be
Says Mike Huerta of the DEA in Arizona: "It's like they have
some kind of mini academy down there in Apatzingan where they train
people to cook and send them to California."
Apatzingan's police department is in the partially abandoned Palacio
Municipal, a tattered two-story colonial with peeling paint, fresh
graffiti and plenty of men with automatic weapons. (Across the street
is the main plaza, the cathedral and the shining star of the city
-- the building where on Oct. 22, 1814, Mexico's first constitution
Fernando Fernandez-Castaneda, Apatzingan's police chief, is 23,
stands about 5 foot 5 with his boots on and weighs about 130 pounds.
His silver ballpoint pen sticks out of his white, blue-striped dress
shirt. He wears gray slacks. Atop his burgundy vinyl-topped desk
is a Samsung computer loaded with Microsoft Word. He wears no gun,
but 3 feet to his left is an AK-47.
Fernandez-Castaneda smiles frequently and talks softly. He says
he is determined to do something about meth in his town. "Crystal
is a gigantic problem here. It has been for years," he says,
as police officers armed with machine guns and pearl-handled revolvers
amble outside his office. "We just used to take it all out
of the country, but now the locals are consuming it, and it is very
"We can spot the obvious drug men, and they don't care that
we know what they do."
Their hair is neatly cropped, he says, and they wear gold chains
and bracelets and ostrich-skin boots. They drive new pickups with
During a routine raid of what Fernandez-Castaneda calls meth-rich
neighborhoods, the chief runs into 23-year-old Jose Manuel. The
two grew up in the same barrio. For the last six months, Manuel
has a new passion -- snorting crank.
"It makes me feel excited," Manuel says, "makes
me want to move."
"Is it hard for you to get it?" he is asked.
"I'll will show you how hard it is. I'll be back in 10 minutes."
But Manuel, on a bike, needs a ride to score, and the chief, eager
to show how common meth is, orders an officer to give Manuel a ride.
After a few minutes, the chief is eager to continue the raid, so
he and 22 officers in four pickups cruise along bumpy dirt roads,
randomly stopping to search young men, who submit quietly.
Three crucifixes mounted with suction cups hang from the chief's
windshield. A fourth lies near the gearshift -- to ensure his safety,
he says. Jesus takes the place of seat belts. "It's like a
university for crystal down here," says Fernandez-Castaneda,
who estimates there are 10 major labs in Apatzingan and countless
smaller ones. "They learn to cook and go to California."
After searching suspects in three neighborhoods, the police come
When the police arrive back at the station, Manuel shows off what
is left of the quarter gram of meth he has copped for about $5.
As he extends the dope, half covered in plastic wrap, the wind blows.
The dope and the plastic wrap swirl out of his hand in a graceful
arc, floating like a parachute to the pavement. Manuel grabs at
it but misses, and the drugs fall to the concrete. He is last seen
trying to sort the crystal from the dirt.
A short while later, a 17-year-old boy wearing a worn Cleveland
Indians baseball cap sits on the chipped front steps of an apartment
building. His old green bike rests next to him. He delivers for
a nearby pharmacy but admits he wants his own type of pharmaceuticals.
"Yeah, I want my own organization one of these days,"
says Pablo Hernandez Rodales, taking off his cap to wipe sweat off
his forehead. "I'm going to have me a new truck and five girls.
"You know, they are never going to stop the crystal now."
Rigoberto is hanging out at Aldo's, a nightclub near Roeding Park
in Fresno. Several men surround him, bragging about Michoacan. "Arriba,
Michoacan!" several shout.
Rigoberto says he has helped out on several meth cooks when work
was hard to find in the citrus fields. "When your family is
starving and they are offering big money, what are you going to
do?" he asks rhetorically. "You think about taking care
of your family."
The man who approached him, he says, was from his hometown, Aguililla,
Traffickers, midlevel dealers and cooks look for people from their
hometowns, places like La Ruana and Tepalcatepec and Apatzingan,
because they know their families -- and they know how to get revenge
if workers talk to cops.
At Aldo's, the fellas are getting a little boisterous as they think
about Michoacan. Beer is guzzled, a few chests are punched, shots
are downed. Sometimes they drink to the memories of all their friends
and relatives who are locked up for cooking and transporting meth.
And sometimes they drink to the guys who get away with it, to the
guys who make big money, hold onto it and get out of Central Valley
fields. To the guys who make it back to Michoacan.
For months, in the spring and summer of 1997, a joint drug task
force in Des Moines, Iowa, tails a suspect. With near biblical patience,
they wait and watch, watch and wait.
July 7 is the lucky day. Bobby Stockdale, a 54-year-old Fresno
native, parks at a Motel 6 on Des Moines' south side. For the past
two years, he has racked up 94,000 miles on his van, making runs
from California to Oklahoma to Iowa. Stockdale hands over the van's
keys to Frank Amezcua Jr., (a member of the Amezcua Contreras cartel, one of
the four biggest in Mexico).
Among the van's other features: It's loaded with 15 pounds of meth.
Agents move in.
Three years later, they still brag about the arrest. "Yeah,
we took down one of the Amezcuas," boasts a police lieutenant
So much meth is produced in the Central Valley by large syndicates
that supply outweighs demand.
"It used to be that almost all of their product stayed in
California," says the BNE's Gravitt, who estimates that less
than half of the meth made in California by big organizations stays
here. "The organizations . . . started filtering their meth
into the established pipelines, and the pipelines tend to be the
old farmworker routes. It went from California into Oregon and the
Yakima Valley in Washington . . . and then it moved east. They are
in at least 30 of the 50 states now."
"They sold to everyone they could in the western half of the
country, and now they're looking for new markets," says Brent
Eaton of the DEA in Miami, who estimates 90 percent of Florida meth
has a California connection. "The demand is growing."
And it's growing, say Eaton, Gravitt and others, because meth makers
followed a traditional marketing process -- flood new areas with
their product so users develop an appetite for it. In the mid-1990s,
California traffickers first snaked along freeways into the heartland,
where cornfields and cow pastures spill from the horizon.
They began dropping meth into Iowa, a state perceived to be solidly
rooted in traditional values, insulated from the drug-soaked excesses
of either coast. Here, the children of farmers have led the country
in standardized test scores for nearly two decades. The state has
one of the country's highest literacy rates and one of its lowest
Thanks to California's Central Valley, it also has a major meth
More than 85 percent of the processed meth in Iowa is channeled
through an intricate, organized pipeline from California. Investigators
believe six families in the Des Moines area are connected to meth
syndicates in California, coordinating shipping schedules, quantities
It's profitable. "A pound . . . purchased in California for
$5,000 sells for at least $18,000 in Iowa," according to the
"These people are businesspeople," says Bruce Upchurch,
a former DEA agent who now serves as Gov. Thomas J. Vilsack's drug
policy coordinator in Des Moines. "It's not a haphazard operation.
In terms of organized crime -- meth -- I don't think there is any
place [in Iowa] that hasn't had some cases."
The rise of organized Mexican meth trafficking coincided with a
demographic shift in the state. More Hispanic immigrants were arriving
in the early 1990s to work in the meatpacking plants of Marshalltown,
Waterloo, Columbus Junction and Storm Lake.
Workers and their families formed distinct communities separated
from the rest of Iowa by language, race and culture. These areas
became convenient covers for Hispanic distributors, providing fertile
ground for recruiting traffickers. Some immigrants who travel the
Midwest to work in the meatpacking plants are paid thousands of
dollars to transport meth.
"The traffickers who were highly organized effectively used
that cover to come in with large amounts of dope," Upchurch
says. "To some degree, they're still doing that."
But that hasn't been the only approach. A Des Moines restaurant
owner, Roberto Gallardo Chavez, operated an interstate distribution
ring that imported at least 480 pounds of meth into Iowa from California
during a two-year period. He also gave a few customers who frequented
his restaurant samples of imported meth, hoping they would come
back for more.
Chavez, a federal grand jury said, coordinated the pick up and
delivery of California meth using "load cars" and "mules"
-- family friends, customers, people off the street. He also worked
with his nephew Esequie Gallardo, who joined the operation a few
months after he moved to Iowa from California in 1998.
In a 1994 case, Des Moines narcotics agents who searched the home
of a newly arrived Bolivian man found $75,000 in cash -- and the
man started talking. He told police he was the accountant for Alfredo
Arroyo Cervantes, a Fresno drug-ring leader who later was convicted.
The ringleader, he said, hired "mules" to smuggle pounds
of meth from the West Coast into the Midwest. A 60-pound delivery
had been selling for $2 million.
The agents followed the man's directions to a "stash house"
-- a trailer in North Des Moines. Buried in the back of the trailer,
underneath a pile of baby clothes, hampers and diaper bags, they
found 55 pounds of meth tightly packed in boxes. It was the largest
meth seizure in Iowa history.
Investigators traced it from the Des Moines trailer to Fresno.
Less than two months later, Fresno police and DEA agents raided
two labs and seized assault rifles, bulletproof vests and more than
300 pounds of chemicals -- mainly ephedrine and red phosphorus.
Half a dozen people in California and Iowa were arrested.
"This one case really opened our eyes," Upchurch says.
"In the early '90s, we were behind the eight ball. Since then,
we have scrambled to catch up. We're still catching up."
While initially America's heartland was hit hardest by the expanding
meth trade, California's meth tentacles are reaching nationwide,
according to DEA reports obtained by The Bee under the Freedom of
In 1999, a meth lab capable of producing 80 pounds per cook was
busted in Opelika, Ala. It was the first super lab bust east of
the Mississippi River. Four men from Michoacan were convicted and
sentenced to federal prison.
This year, the DEA reported a "significant increase"
in meth availability in western Michigan, increased meth smuggling
by Mexican traffickers in western Kentucky and meth becoming the
"drug of choice" in rural Oklahoma, western Colorado and
North Dakota. In Colorado, the majority of the meth seized came
either from Mexico or "from large-scale laboratories in California,"
according to the DEA.
In the first three months of this year, no Mexican meth traffickers
had been encountered in Greensboro, N.C., "but by the second
quarter of 2000, the prevalence of Mexican trafficking organizations
in Greensboro was unmistakable."
In 1991, none of the women arrested in the Omaha area tested positive
for meth, but in 1998, 13.6 percent tested positive. In Missouri,
two meth labs were seized in 1992; in 1997, 421 labs had been seized.
Meth cases in the Washington, D.C., area "increasingly show
evidence of ties to Mexican or California-based Mexican methamphetamine
traffickers and producers."
And, the DEA reported, "methamphetamine continues to be abused
by nearly all social classes in the Fresno area."
If the meth trail were linear, disrupting it would be far easier
for law enforcement. But as soon as one branch is discovered, it
seems, another sprouts.
The newest, narcotics agents say, is the Middle East connection:
groups or individuals with ties to Syria, Jordan, Israel, Yemen
and other Middle Eastern countries, who supply pseudoephedrine tablets
used to make meth, usually through the ownership of convenience
stores, wholesale grocery supply companies and distribution outlets
for medical supplies. Middle East tablet dealers buy a case for
$600 to $800, then sell it to meth makers for $3,000 to $4,000.
This year in Fresno, the DEA says, there have been 10 major pseudoephedrine
cases involving connections from the Middle East. "We currently
have two major cases where we are continuing the investigation because
the money trail leads back to Syria and Israel," says DEA agent
Ed Cazeras in Fresno.
"It's probably the hottest topic for us right now," says
Craig Hammer of the BNE in Orange County. "Middle Easterners
are public enemy No. 1 in the meth trade."
In a 1998 case, a Sacramento-area businessman, Abdel Razzaq M.
Daas, was sentenced to eight years for selling more than 2 million
tablets used to make meth. From his Rose Garden Distributing No.
2, he sold silk roses, condoms and 262 cases of pseudoephedrine
to convenience stores. The tablets were enough to make 130 pounds
`On July 29, an eight-month DEA investigation culminated with arrests
nationwide of eight men from Syria, Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia,
who drug agents say ran a nationwide ring that supplied pseudoephedrine
tablets to Mexican meth organizations in California.
"This is the most substantial, most important thing we have
done to combat meth since we started battling meth," says Jack
Riley, a DEA official in Washington.
Five days after the bust, tablet prices had risen in the Central
"They were like OPEC, setting prices, detailing the transportation
of the pseudo," says Riley.
Authorities became aware of the group when they discovered records
showing several distributors were shipping more pseudoephedrine
than would be necessary if everybody in the United States came down
with a cold.
During the investigation, called "Operation Mountain Express,"
the DEA arrested 160 people (including some in Fresno), seized $8
million cash, 83 pounds of meth and 10 metric tons of pseudoephedrine capable of producing
18,000 pounds of meth with a wholesale value of $100 million.