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Meth floods U.S. border crossing

By Elliot Spagat

Associated Press

LAST UPDATED: 06:00 a.m. HST, Jun 28, 2013

SAN DIEGO » Children walk across the U.S.-Mexico border with crystal methamphetamine strapped to their backs or concealed between notebook pages. Motorists disguise liquid meth in tequila bottles, windshield washer containers and gas tanks.

The smuggling of the drug at land border crossings has jumped in recent years but especially at San Diego's San Ysidro port of entry, which accounted for more than 40 percent of seizures in fiscal year 2012. That's more than three times the second-highest — five miles east — and more than five times the third-highest, in Nogales, Ariz.

The spike reflects a shift in production to Mexico after a U.S. crackdown on domestic labs and the Sinaloa cartel's new hold on the prized Tijuana-San Diego smuggling corridor.

A turf war that gripped Tijuana a few years ago with beheadings and daytime shootouts ended with the cartel coming out on top. The drugs, meanwhile, continue flowing through San Ysidro, the Western hemisphere's busiest land border crossing with an average of 40,000 cars and 25,000 pedestrians entering daily.

"This is the gem for traffickers," said Gary Hill, assistant special agent in charge of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in San Diego. "It's the greatest place for these guys to cross because there are so many opportunities."

Customs and Border Protection officers seized 5,566 pounds of methamphetamine at San Ysidro in the 2012 fiscal year, more than double two years earlier, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Homeland Security Investigations unit. On the entire border, inspectors seized 13,195 pounds, also more than double.

From October 2012 through March, seizures totaled 2,169 pounds at San Ysidro and 1,730 pounds at Otay Mesa, giving San Diego 61 percent of the 6,364 pounds seized at Mexican border crossings. Much of the rest was found in Laredo, Texas; Nogales; and Calexico, Calif.

San Ysidro — unlike other busy border crossings — blends into a sprawl of 18 million people that includes Los Angeles, one of the nation's top distribution hubs. By contrast, El Paso is more than 600 miles from Dallas on a lonely highway with Border Patrol checkpoints.

Rush-hour comes weekday mornings, with thousands of motorists clogging Tijuana streets to approach 24 U.S.-bound inspection lanes on their way to school or work. Vendors weave between cars, hawking cappuccinos, burritos, newspapers and trinkets.

A $732 million expansion that has created even longer delays may offer an extra incentive for smugglers who bet that inspectors will move people quickly to avoid criticism for hampering commerce and travel, said Joe Garcia, assistant special agent in charge of ICE investigations in San Diego.

Children are caught with methamphetamine strapped to their bodies several times a week — an "alarming increase," according to Garcia. They are typically paid $50 to $200 for each trip, carrying 3 pounds on average.

Drivers, who collect up to $2,000 per trip, conceal methamphetamine in bumpers, batteries, radiators and almost any other crevice imaginable. Packaging is smothered with mustard, baby powder and laundry detergent to fool drug-sniffing dogs.

Crystals are increasingly dissolved in water, especially during the last year, making the drug more difficult to detect in giant X-ray scanners that inspectors order some motorists to drive through. The water is later boiled and often mixed with acetone, a combustible fluid used in paints that yields clear shards of methamphetamine favored by users. The drug often remains in liquid form until reaching its final distribution hub.

The government has expanded X-ray inspections of cars at the border in recent years, but increased production in Mexico and the Sinaloa cartel's presence are driving the seizures, Garcia said. "This is a new corridor for them," he said.

The U.S. government shut large methamphetamine labs during the last decade as it introduced sharp limits on chemicals used to make the drug, causing production to shift to Mexico.

The U.S. State Department said in March that the Mexican government seized 958 labs under former President Felipe Calderon from 2006 to 2012, compared with 145 under the previous administration. Mexico seized 267 labs last year, up from 227 in 2011.

As production moved to central Mexico, the Sinaloa cartel found opportunity in Tijuana in 2008 when it backed a breakaway faction of the Arellano Felix clan, named for a family that controlled the border smuggling route for two decades. Sinaloa, led by Joaquin "Chapo" Guzman, had long dominated nearby in eastern California and Arizona.

Tijuana registered 844 murders in 2008 in a turf war that horrified residents with castrated bodies hanging from bridges. After the Sinaloa cartel prevailed, the Mexican border city of more than 2 million people returned to relative calm, with 332 murders last year and almost no public displays of brutality.

Alfonzo "Achilles" Arzate and his younger brother Rene, known as "The Frog," have emerged as top Sinaloa operatives in Tijuana — the former known as the brains and the latter as the brawn. The elder Arzate has been mentioned on wire intercepts for drug deals as far as Chicago, Hill said.

He appears to have gained favor with the Sinaloa cartel brass after another cartel operative raided one of his warehouses in October 2010, leading to a shootout and the government seizing 134 tons of marijuana.

Methamphetamine has also turned into a scourge throughout Tijuana, becoming the most common drug offense for dealers and consumers in the last five years, said Miguel Angel Guerrero, coordinator of the Baja California state attorney general's organized crime unit.

"It has increased a lot in the city because it's cheaper than cocaine, even cheaper than marijuana," he said.

Disputes among street dealers lead to spurts of violence in Tijuana, said Guerrero, including April's murder tally of 56 bodies. But the killings pale in numbers and brutality compared to the dark days of 2008 and 2009. While president, Calderon hailed Tijuana as a success story in his war on cartels.

"The Sinaloa cartel, their presence here has been strong enough to the point that no one is pushing back," said the DEA's Hill. "They just simply want to focus on making money and moving the dope across."

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allie wrote:
scary..so sad people keep these cartels in business
on June 28,2013 | 06:28AM
jess wrote:
Many people read stories like this and think the answer to this problem is in Mexico.... it's not. It's in the US, where there are extremely high levels of drug use, guns that are easy to attain (thank you GOP!), and greedy people with cash and bad intentions. The drugs come in, the money and guns go out. We need some real drug treatment programs in the states (not just jail) and a crackdown on guns going out (to prevent further cartel violence) instead of the ineffective "war on drugs" which has just created a better arena for the cartels and their smugglers.
on June 28,2013 | 07:26AM
all_fed_up wrote:
Legalize it, regulate it, and tax it. Take the cartels out of the picture and out of business.
on June 28,2013 | 07:36AM
jess wrote:
I could not support a legalization of meth. I could see full blown legalization of pot, but Mexican pot is crap compared to what's grown in California, and probably in your neighbors closet. It's the hard drugs like meth and cocaine that provide all the funding for the cartels.
on June 28,2013 | 07:53AM
jwaldrip7 wrote:
jess Just couldn't pass on the opportunity to blame thr GOP..How does this relate to drug trafficers using KIDS to carry drugs into the US...maybe its time to guit blaming George Bush and look at the real criminals,,,illegal immigrants aren't bring jobs and money into this country or anything else useful...HELLO WAKE UP AND SMELL THE COFFEE ps tougher gun legislation would definitely keep guns away from the bad guys.they wll wake up and say I was gonna get a gun and commit a crime but those darn democrats passed a tough gun law and I won't be able to, darng it Coffee's almost ready
on June 28,2013 | 07:43AM
jess wrote:
Just the gun part... and yes, if it weren't so easy to get a gun in the US there would be less in Mexico. Nobody needs an AK47... unless you're maybe a cartel member or about to commit a massacre.
on June 28,2013 | 07:50AM
Secdept1 wrote:
on June 28,2013 | 07:51AM
cojef wrote:
BLame game, Attorney General and his "Fast and Furious" caper ended up with the Cartels enriching themselves wth over 2,000 weapons, many assaualt rifles. Wonder what political party the AG belongs to?? If you can't guess. "jess" he is a Democrat. Also, The AG was censured by Congress for not telling the truth.
on June 28,2013 | 08:43AM
Bdpapa wrote:
This problem has existed for 50 years. The amount of traffic, foot, and auto, is just too much. I'm surprised they can operate with all of that movement.
on June 28,2013 | 08:13AM
cojef wrote:
Smuggling yes, Meth is only in recent thing, although it was formulized long ago, and there are labs in the USA as well.
on June 28,2013 | 08:47AM
crystal methamphetamine....is a mixtures of chemicals that kills the healthy cells of the body ...with devastating effects this is not the MAUII WAOHI...herbs ...(that can be recommended by a doctor for pain or nosea) Crystal METH as invades and is destroying thousands of Hawaiians and their famalies...ICE...as it is call here is even destroying the life of rich and fanous famaly ...BHAKTI GABBARD ...son of Mike Gabbard as been arested 5 times this year and is now in jail in Las vegas ....All his childhood friends point to his problem with "ICE" Unfortunatly the addiction is very very strong ....and unless a person gets help ...or even wants help The mexican cartels are cashing in billions of dollars.....They could not care less who lives or dies Hawaii goverment NEEDS TO DO WAY MORE TO PROTECT THE POPULATION FROM THIS SCURGE OPEN FREE CLINICS >>FOR TREATMENTS >>>>DETOX CENTER MONITOR 24/7 If Bhakti Gabbard ....after a very severe upbrigning by a schooll master ...any kid in Hawaii is a potential victim
on June 28,2013 | 08:36AM
kainalu wrote:
Every single penny spent to "enforce" pot regulations should be geared to stopping this meth crisis.
on June 28,2013 | 08:40AM
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