Behind Oklahoma's Meth Lab Boom

The number of methamphetamine lab seizures has increased for the first time in six years. It's been a particular problem in Oklahoma where a new, simpler way to cook meth combined with efforts by a Mexican drug cartel have fueled the spread of the drug. Gail Banzet of member station KOSU reports.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Oklahoma's a state that's known for oil, cattle and tornadoes, though now of course it's also a new high-tech center. Coming up, a feature Oklahoma state personality - weather, and the men and women who chase it.

But first, earlier this month, U.S. authorities carried out one of the largest single strikes on Mexican drug gangs operating on American soil. Officers arrested more than 300 members of the drug organization La Familia, including a handful based in Oklahoma. Authorities say it's just the beginning and lays groundwork for additional drug arrests in the heart of the country.

Gail Banzet of member station KOSU reports.

GAIL BANZET: I'm standing outside a truck stop alongside Interstate 35, just on the edge of Oklahoma City. I-44, I-40 and I-35 all come together here, and narcotics officers say this is where a lot of drugs are transported through the heart of Oklahoma.

Mr. MARK WOODWARD (Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics): Many of the drugs going for distribution nationwide are going to come right through this area within a 24-hour period on almost a daily basis.

BANZET: Mark Woodward with the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics says Oklahoma City is the ideal central location for drug trafficking. Oklahoma already faces a growing problem of homemade meth, and now cartels are using the confluence of interstates here to drop off everything from marijuana and heroin to cocaine and prescription pills.

(Soundbite of traffic)

BANZET: At Love(ph) Travel Stop just off I-35, big tractor trailers fuel up. As many as 5,000 people will pass through here in a day's time.

Unidentified Woman: Hello.

Mr. BILL SELLERS (General Manager, Love Travel Stop): Hello. How are you today?

BANZET: Inside, General Manager Bill Sellers says he's never really thought much about Mexican drug trafficking outside his window, but drug arrests are pretty common.

Mr. SELLERS: We see drug busts out in our parking lot. On an occasion we'll see multiple police vehicles pulling up and checking the car and dogs get out. And usually they find something.

BANZET: State agencies don't keep a running total of arrests but there's been a steady increase of drug traffic since the mid-'90s. Back out on the interstate, narcotics Officer Jack Forney says smugglers are getting creative.

Mr. JACK FORNEY (Narcotics Officer): They'll hide it on their persons, they'll hide it in tires, they'll hide it underneath dash compartments, spare tires in the back of the vehicle, compartments built into fire walls or built into the motor. We've seen some motor compartments lately.

BANZET: Mexican drug cartels are also reaching different demographics of people to do their dirty work. Lieutenant Brett Key of the Oklahoma Highway Patrol says working the interstates is risky these days, because almost anyone could be a suspect.

Mr. BRETT KEY (Oklahoma Highway Patrol): The people that are actually moving the narcotics and moving the currency and stuff through our state and through other states, there's not a gender-specific or a race-specific individual there.

BANZET: State troopers have stepped up their firearm and hand-to-hand combat training, because as the drug trafficking increases, so does the violence. Mark Woodward with the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics says smugglers are told to protect their shipments at all costs. And once they do reach a central location like Oklahoma City, they infiltrate the community looking for recruits they can trust.

Mr. WOODWARD: So they do bring people that they rely on to build a house, build a family, send their kids to school, open up a car lot, a curio shop - but most of those are nothing more for fronts for them to help bring the drugs into Oklahoma for nationwide distribution, and more importantly using those businesses to get the money or their drug proceeds back to Mexico.

BANZET: Woodward expects more crackdowns on large gangs like La Familia. He says Oklahoma authorities have increased their undercover operations to try to disrupt the drug cartels.

For NPR News, I'm Gail Banzet.

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