Editor’s note: This is the second in a three-part series examining drug smuggling, human smuggling and human trafficking in the San Diego and Orange County area, and how federal and local law enforcement agencies are grappling with the problems. Part 1: Part 3:
Drugs flow from Mexico into Southern California in massive quantities -- especially methamphetamine in recent years -- but more than 1,000 new border agents in San Diego County make them scarcer and more expensive, federal officials say.
At the I-5 checkpoint south of San Clemente -- and at five other permanent highway checkpoints -- the Border Patrol stops some cars at random and others that look suspicious, such as vehicles with low carriages indicating extra weight, said Border Patrol spokesman Jerry Conlin.
If a stopped driver exhibits specific physical cues or answers questions inconsistently, agents funnel the car to a secondary area. Typically, drug dogs are then brought in to sniff around the vehicle. Canines are one of law enforcement’s most powerful weapons against drug smuggling. When a dog signals the presence of drugs—either by sitting up straight and pointing or by pawing at the source of the odor—it constitutes a legally ironclad probable cause to search a vehicle, person or building.
“You teach them the odor recognition, and then you teach them the response,” said Dave Reaver of Adlerhorst K-9 Academy in Riverside County. “Then you vary the location—whether it’s a vehicle or a house.”
Reaver doesn’t train the Border Patrol’s dogs,
With an olfactory capability more than 1 million times stronger than humans, dogs are a near-perfect way of detecting contraband.
Smugglers have been known to seal their stash in plastic and float it inside a vehicle gas tank just to foil the K-9 units. But an experienced dog can detect the scent even when drugs are sealed in plastic and submerged in gasoline.
“The dogs aren’t infallible, but it’s difficult to hide the odor,” Reaver said.
More Agents Mean More Drugs Snagged
Border Patrol drug seizure statistics represent only a fraction of what is captured crossing the border into San Diego County. The agency's numbers don't include drugs seized as part of Drug Enforcement Administration investigations or multi-agency task forces, like the one that uncovered two elaborate smuggling tunnels under the Tijuana border in November, netting almost 20 tons of marijuana.
But Border Patrol drug hauls have skyrocketed in recent years, which Conlin attributed to a huge increase in the agency’s San Diego resources. The number of agents in the San Diego Sector has increased from 1,500 in 2005 to 2,700 now. And, in December 2011, the agency opened a brand new field office at the I-5 checkpoint, he said.
In fiscal year 2010 -- which runs from October 2009 through September 2010 -- the Border Patrol in San Diego County seized 21,576 pounds of weed, 1,342 pounds of cocaine, 306 pounds of methamphetamine and 501 ounces of heroin.
In fiscal 2011, marijuana seizures in the region more than tripled, to 68,825 pounds.
Meanwhile, cocaine seizures nearly doubled (to 2,504 pounds), meth jumped almost 80 percent (to 548 pounds) and heroin climbed 75 percent (to 878 ounces).
In the first five months of fiscal 2012, fake dashboards, speaker boxes, trunk compartments and other hiding places have yielded similar results. Although pot and cocaine seizures appear to be drifting down (16,716 pounds and 717 pounds, respectively, in the first five months of the fiscal year), meth and heroin are way up.
If the current seizure rates hold, the amount of intercepted methamphetamine will nearly double over last year (to 1,084 pounds), and heroin will rise by about 260 percent (to 2,278 ounces).
The Rise of Mexican Methamphetamine
Gary Hill, DEA assistant special agent-in-charge in the San Diego Sector, said the agency has seen a particular increase in Mexican-made methamphetamine over the past several years because of developments in the manufacturing process and tighter restrictions on meth ingredients in the U.S.
The 2005 Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act clamped down on pseudophedrine, a common cold medicine used to make meth. The act required retailers to lock up over-the-counter medicines containing pseudophedrine and maintain a log of each transaction.
Before that, Caucasian outlaw motorcycle gangs, white power groups and domestic Hispanic gangs manufactured and sold much of the meth consumed in Southern California, according to a study by criminologist Curtis Robinson and other academic literature.
Mexico didn’t really enter the picture because phosphorous, another component in the meth manufacturing process, was tightly restricted in that nation because of its potential use in explosives and incendiary devices, Hill said.
Now, because of U.S. restrictions on pseudophedrine and a new meth-making process that leaves out phosphorous, it’s more economical to manufacture the drug in Mexico, Hill said. So Mexican drug cartels have added meth to their portfolios.
Check Patch.com tomorrow for the final installment of our border crime series. Part 3 investigates human smuggling and trafficking across the border in Southern California, and law enforcement’s efforts to foil it.