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Mexican drug cartels alter meth battle

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POSTED May 17, 2014 1:52 a.m.

James Boles doesn’t look like an undercover cop.

That’s kind of the idea. His hair is cropped short and his goatee is scraggly. He wears the band T-shirt and the jeans that you’d expect of a construction worker. His shoes bear the worn out soles of somebody that has spent a lot of time – and a lot of miles – walking up and down the streets chasing the dragon.

Addicts talk about how the high never feels as good as it does the first time, and one quick glance at Boles and you see a guy who will do anything to get back to that place. If you passed him on the street you’d think that he was a guy who hadn’t slept for two days. A tweaker. Or as one of his friends put it, somebody that “looks like s***.”

But the star around his neck is unmistakable. Boles is a San Joaquin County Sherriff’s Deputy and a member of the San Joaquin County Metro Narcotics Task Force. His ability to blend in with those that he’s investigating is both an asset and an insurance policy.

With the way that the drug trade is constantly shape-shifting in California today, the last thing you want to have happen is be discovered as a police officer when your backup is a block away and you can’t radio for help.

Bob Dylan famously sang about how things were changing. He might as well have been talking about how things operate within the infrastructure of the drug pipelines and distribution networks that disseminate the methamphetamine and other street drugs throughout The Golden State.

What was once a racket cornered by biker gangs and small local gang factions has gone professional. The Mexican drug cartels and their meticulous methods are now the template, and the fact that they operate across international border makes it harder for people like Boles to effectively eradicate what has already surpassed the epidemic stage in most Central Valley communities. Meth use is no longer a trend or something confined to an after-school special. It permeates every level of the societal structure. And it doesn’t appear to be going away anytime soon.

• • •

The Northern Trek

Efforts by specialized units like Boles’ and the Manteca Street Crimes Unit, in partnership with numerous federal agencies and task forces, essentially eradicated the home meth lab from San Joaquin County.

There was a time, Boles said, when his unit (he also serves on the lab breakdown team) was called out weekly because a lab had been discovered somewhere.

When it became illegal to possess or sell pure ephedrine and pharmacies began tracking the number of boxes of cold medicine containing pseudoephedrine being sold to individual customers, meth cooks that used their garages and sheds to play as amateur chemists suddenly found it much harder to fly under the radar.

And once the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Office of Diversion Control placed a tight lid on the precursors that could be used to skirt the traditional backdoor meth manufacturing methods, it suddenly became much more viable – and lucrative – for criminal syndicates operating outside of the United States to create superlabs capable of producing massive amounts of crystallized methamphetamine.

The system operates much the same way it did when cocaine exploded onto the scene in the early 1980s. The refinement takes place elsewhere and the drugs are then smuggled into the United States by trying to force through as much as possible at even given opportunity.

“They’ll send ten trucks and if one or two of them get stopped and seized at the border, they look at that as the cost of doing business,” Boles said. “The others get through and those drugs eventually make their way into our communities and to wherever there is a demand.

“As long as there is a demand, they’re going to keep pushing it through.”

And anytime you introduce an element like that into the equation – cartels that use violence and intimidation to control people and populations – it adds a whole different layer for local law enforcement to deal with.

When people think of cartels, they think of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera –the Sinaloa cartel king of and leader the vast trafficking empire that so much money off of shipping drugs across the border that he has appeared on the Forbes list of the world’s most powerful people every year since 2009.

It’s the reach of people like that, however, that makes life difficult for local cops. 

Cartels mean gangs, and more often than not it’s low-level street soldiers that are carrying out the orders of higher-ups that call the shots and never gets their hands dirty – layers and layers of protection separating the top of the pyramid from those just happy to be part of the structure.

Take away one and there are 20 more waiting to take his place. 

 According to Manteca Police Department Street Crimes Unit Sergeant Chris Mraz, the meth that is smuggled into the United States is then further refined to create the crystal form that is most popular among users.

And his team has seen how intricate that process can be and has taken down networks with coordinated efforts among other local law enforcement agencies and federal task forces looking to put drug dealers and manufacturers out of business for good.

In October Mraz oversaw the simultaneous serving of five search warrants throughout San Joaquin County after a long-term investigation revealed an extensive web of large-scale drug distribution. His detectives – he works with three federal task force-certified Manteca Police detectives to comprise the Street Crimes Unit and often works closely with other units like Manteca’s gang suppression unit and Boles’ Metro Narcotics Task Force whenever there’s crossover – uncovered 28 pounds of meth and more than 300 pounds of marijuana scattered about the five homes. The entire haul was valued at more than $1.2 million.

There was reason to believe that at least some of those drugs had made their way to the Central Valley via that Northern trek through the network that connects to the Mexico-based cartels.

• • •

The Day-to-Day Dealings

Officers like Mraz – a longtime Manteca cop that has run the gamut on assignments – often have their hands full when it comes to working cases and investigating new ones.

Outside of what patrol officers uncover, it’s just Mraz and three other detectives – not counting the gang suppression unit (he says more often than not where there are drugs there are gangs and they often work together) – trying to keep a handle on all of the narcotics dealings taking place in Manteca at a given time.

That means hitting the streets and getting to know the players and making yourself both known and invisible at the same time. Despite an economy that most people would classify as stagnant, Manteca has steadily grown and it’s no secret that people as a whole – regardless of their job or their house or their clothes – like drugs.

Sometimes that means there’s evolution. The threshold for California residents to “legally” purchase and smoke marijuana for any one of a number of medical ailments is so ridiculously low that some local detectives have gotten their own “compassionate use” cards under a DMV alias.

Of course somebody isn’t going to become a meth user simply because they pick up a joint and smoke it. But as Mraz pointed out, he’s never met a meth user that didn’t start somewhere, and that somewhere is more often than not marijuana.

But it’s a game of whack-a-mole.

First it was the DEA cracking down on the precursors which led to Mexican superlabs.

Now it’s the DEA closely monitoring doctors that over-prescribe pain medication, which has led to a rise in the trafficking, sales and use of heroin – a drug that was replaced somewhat by opiate pain medication (Mraz said most that hit the street are stolen in residential burglaries) but has roared back thanks to skyrocketing prices on drugs like oxycodone (Oxycontin) and hydrocodone (Vicodin, Norco).

The bottom line, however, is the same. Drug sales and the “easy money” that come with it will always bring problems, and that’s what Mraz and his dedicated team hope to remove from the societal equation.

“There is currently a heavy crossover between gangs and drugs because it’s a revenue source,” he said. “In terms of risk and reward, I don’t think that’s on anyone’s mind when they’re dealing – the allure is the profit.

“When my team tries to deal with meth, it’s not only because drugs are bad. It’s also an effort to stem the ancillary crimes that come from drug addiction. When people get their homes burglarized or cars stolen, it impacts their lives in ways they can’t anticipate. What they don’t think about is this multi-billion dollar business is borne on the backs of folks who are just trying to live a normal life and become a victim.”

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