More than 70 percent of methamphetamine illegally trafficked into the U.S. passes through U.S.-Mexico border crossings in the San Diego area. That’s despite laws in both countries designed to crack down on the drug.
Customs and Border Protection agents at the San Ysidro Port of Entry face a tough balancing act. Facilitating international trade and travel on the one hand. On the other, trying to stop drugs and other illegal cargo from getting into the U.S.
In recent years, they’ve seen a dramatic increase in one particular drug. Methamphetamine seizures at San Diego’s ports of entry have risen by more than 300 percent since 2008.
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.
Joe Garcia, Deputy Special Agent In Charge for ICE Homeland Security Investigations in San Diego, says “Gangs, biker gangs usually controlled the meth production and distribution, and Mexico used to provide the precursors.”
Precursors being 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. There was 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. Garcia says with continued demand, and restricted supply, organized crime saw a big opportunity.
“Especially the Sinaloa cartel, has looked at this and said, “why are we the middle man? Why aren’t we producing this ourselves?”
Now, Garcia says, more than 80 percent of the meth seized in the U.S. is made in Mexico. And 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. 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, the so-called Colima cartel,” says David Shirk, an expert on Mexican drug trafficking at the University of San Diego.
In the late 90s, that cartel first 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 through the newly established, or newly consolidated networks of the Sinaloa cartel,” Shirk says.
Most meth comes across the border in passenger cars, in ever more elaborate hiding places. On a recent morning at San Ysidro, Customs and Border Protection Agents called in a mechanic to detach and then 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 pounds.
Heightened border security has made smuggling riskier, but the profits are extraordinary, says Assistant U.S. Attorney in San Diego, Linda Frakes.
“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,” she says. “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 again on the rise.
Still, 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, Agent 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. But we’re trying to get them to go away from meth because meth just ravages any user.”