An undercover police officer tests a seized substance for methamphetamine. The substance will be taken to a crime lab for further testing, but this field test will help officers establish a case when they get to court.
Amy Walters, NPR
Amy Walters, NPR
A suspect awaits transport to jail at the house of a suspected methamphetamine dealer outside Ozark, Missouri.
Amy Walters, NPR
Amy Walters, NPR
The nation's war on drugs has at least one successful battle: State and federal laws limiting access to cold medicines containing ephedrine and pseudoephedrine have dramatically curtailed small "mom and pop" meth labs.
Thousands of these toxic and explosive labs flourished in the nation's interior, especially in rural areas in the South, Midwest and West. From 1998 to 2003, more than 38,000 small meth labs were discovered in rural areas — more than those found in cities and suburbs combined. More than 10,000 labs were seized in 2003 alone, the peak year for small labs. They were typically set up in bathrooms, kitchens, motel rooms, cars and abandoned buildings.
But in 2004, states began restricting purchases of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, key ingredients in some meth recipes. Congress responded a year later with a federal law. The impact on meth labs was swift and dramatic, especially in the Midwest, where meth makers were especially prolific.
Meth lab seizures are down 55 percent in Missouri, 73 percent in Iowa and Kansas and 88 percent in Nebraska, according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy. Labs persist in places where meth cooks "smurf" for ephedrine and pseudoephedrine — a process that involves "surfing" from store to store, buying the typical limit of two packages of medicine, and building up a small supply.
Police in Aurora, Mo., a town of 8,000 on the edge of the Ozarks, used to find a meth lab a month.
"Meth is [the] No. 1 problem we have with drugs and narcotics," said Rick Batson, Aurora's police chief. "It's the drug of choice in this part of the country. Over the last eight or nine years, it's been a severe problem."
Now Aurora police find meth labs an average of once year.
"So, we don't have that meth problem," Batson says, "but what we have now is something called 'ice.'"
The Growth of Mexican 'Ice' Meth
"Ice" is a crystallized form of meth also known as crystal. It is produced in relatively larger quantities in so-called "superlabs." Most are based in Mexico; they ship drugs to the United States by UPS, FEDEX and Greyhound bus, as well as in cars and trucks with secret compartments. For more than a year, a two-story Victorian home in Aurora, one of the nicest in the neighborhood, was at the receiving end of one trafficking route.
"This individual had the direct contact in Mexico," Batson noted. "[He] brought the crystal meth from Mexico to this location and dispersed it from here."
The Mexican dealer in Aurora distributed 100 pounds throughout southwest Missouri. That's as much as 180,000 doses, with a street value of as much as $4.5 million.
Southwest Missouri and northwest Arkansas are home to poultry farms and processing plants that hire Mexican workers.
"The Hispanic population in town here is a hardworking bunch of people," Batson said. But "there are those in the group who go in the other direction. They have access to [meth] in Mexico, so they take advantage of that."
A Sophisticated Drug Network
Yolanda Lorge is more specific about who is and isn't involved in the meth trade. Lorge has been in southwest Missouri for 30 years and is president of Grupo Latinoamericano, an advocacy group for Latin American immigrants.
"These are people with no connections other than immediate family," she says of most of the Latino immigrants in the region. "They don't have the language and [other] skills to do this kind of business. It doesn't seem logical that drug lords would rely on these types of immigrants."
But there are some immigrants with "criminal minds," Lorge added. "They feel that this is the place to be if they want to get rich, because Americans really like their drugs. There is a much bigger profit in drugs than in trying to sell burritos or tacos. So if they have that criminal mentality, this is the place to be."
Dave Barton is Midwest director for the federal government's High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, based in Kansas City.
The [Mexican meth] groups are very sophisticated," he says. "They generate huge amounts of profits and money. They have sophisticated communication links. They have family ties. And they are very, very organized in the way they manufacture and move their product."
That product filled the gap in meth supply when "mom and pop" labs began to diminish. It is also feeding "exploding meth populations" in Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Kentucky, according to Barton.
More Potential for Violence
The shift from meth made in "mom and pop" labs to crystal or ice imported from Mexico has one major benefit for police, according to Mike McDonald, a drug-control detective in Jasper County, Mo.
"The threat of meth labs blowing up... has gone down," Jasper explained. Also reduced are threats "of long-term exposure to guys like me, who break the meth labs down, [and] to kids being exposed because mom and dad's cooking [meth] in the house."
Police also have more time to focus on trafficking. McDonald says it takes him more than six hours to handle incidents involving meth labs, due to the presence of toxic and explosive chemicals. Arresting and processing users and dealers takes as little as two hours.
But McDonald warns that there's more money in the Mexican meth trade, along with organized cartels. Both indicate more potential for violence.
"They can afford surveillance systems. They can afford body armor. They can afford weapons. And we're going to see more and more of that now," McDonald says.
There are signs already of a more violent trade, according to one old "mom and pop" meth maker wistful for the old days. He's helping police now, so authorities asked NPR not to use his name.
"If you came to me and got an eight ball of dope and didn't pay me, that's cool," the former meth producer said. "You knew you could never come back and get anything from me ever again. Now, if you get $50 worth of dope on credit and don't pay, they're subject to go... burn your car, or hurt you or your mom or your family. That's the difference."
Faster, Stronger Addiction
There's one other key difference. Addicts and treatment counselors say Mexican meth, when smoked in its purer and more potent forms, leads to quicker and deeper addiction. They say it's an addiction that is tougher to kick.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse agrees. In fact, meth addiction and meth-related drug treatment are on the rise, according to the National Drug Intelligence Center. And that increase coincides with the increased trafficking in Mexican meth.
"It's out there. It's here to stay," said T.J. Stevens of southwest Missouri's Comet Drug Task Force. "It's going to take some act of God to make it change."
This house outside Ozark, Mo., was the site of seven methamphetamine-related arrests in seven hours. A woman living there admitted to using meth but denied she's a dealer. She has yet to be charged.
Amy Walters, NPR
Amy Walters, NPR
Users get their Mexican meth from local dealers, far from the Mexican cartels producing ice or crystal. Police in southwest Missouri try to intercept meth as it moves between suppliers, dealers and users. They find the drug in unlikely places. And they encounter difficult scenes involving families and children.
In early March, two carloads of undercover officers drove down a dead-end farm road outside Ozark, Mo., investigating a tip. The officers work with the region's Comet Drug Task Force, a joint effort of the Missouri High Patrol, county sheriffs and local police. An informant told investigators they'd find a meth dealer in a white, two-story colonial home perched in a glen of trees. It's a bucolic rural setting, except for the freeway roar in the distance, the drug-sniffing dog inside, and the arrest in the driveway of a 45-year-old grandmother.
Janet Patrick consented to searches of her purse and car. Officers found a small bag of crystal meth and packets of $20 and $100 bills, wrapped in rubber bands, in increments typical for meth sales, they said.
"I did not know that was in there," Patrick cried, as handcuffs clicked on her wrists. "I swear to God, I did not know."
Patrick was babysitting her grandson, a toddler, when she was arrested. Police called the boy's mother, a17-year-old, at a local high school. The young woman arrived in tears, and agreed to speak to NPR on the condition she not be named.
"[Meth] has f—-ing trashed Missouri," she cried, as she held her son. "I've always thought it was disgusting, but it makes it worse to know that she [her mother] does it."
Patrick admitted to using meth but denied she's a dealer. She has yet to be charged. Police say their investigation continues. Eight more people were cuffed and jailed at or near Patrick's home that day. Most drove up the dead-end farm road, some right up a long driveway to the house. They kept arriving as police tried to search the home. For seven hours, officers arrested and questioned suspects, and chased some who tried to get away. One of those chased is believed to be a major distributor. Police say he had a half-pound of meth in his car, a large amount.
All but two of the arrests were for meth-related charges. Three children under age 3 were watched temporarily by police as a grandparent or parent was arrested. Patrick said some of those arrested were friends merely coming to her house to visit. She said she did not know the others, including the suspected distributor.
"We could probably, literally, stay out at that one house for another three or four hours," speculated T.J. Stevens, the supervisor of the drug task force, as he and other officers finally drove away. "And [we'd] end up with continual arrests, continual methamphetamine seized, just from one house in one county of seven that we cover."