On a recent afternoon in Albuquerque, an unmarked SUV pulled into a gas station on the corner of a busy intersection. Detective Brian Sallee lifted a pair of binoculars and scanned a parking lot a quarter mile down the road. “Have a look,” he said, handing me the binoculars and pointing to a chain-link fence, two picnic tables, and a food truck outside a tire repair shop. In ten minutes, two Mexican nationals were going to conduct a $28,000 drug deal with an undercover officer.
The sting operation was a collaboration between the Albuquerque Police Department Narcotics Squad, which Sallee heads, and a parallel unit from a city in southern New Mexico that I was asked not to name. Close to a dozen unmarked vehicles were scattered in parking lots and side streets within a quarter-mile radius of the tire shop. Dealers often employ counter-surveillance on bigger sales to detect law enforcement, so support teams risk ruining a sting and endangering an undercover agent if they monitor a scene too conspicuously. But they also need to be close enough to make an arrest or to intervene quickly if something goes wrong. The agents positioned with clear sightlines provided updates on a shared radio frequency to all law enforcement in the area.
“What looks to be the two targets,” a voice said over the radio. “One in red shirt and jeans, one in a tan hat. They’re hangin’ outside near the table.” We were on the outer periphery of the operation, too distant to see the scene clearly without binoculars. “The gray SUV with dark-tinted windows and silver rims. One of the targets is in that vehicle right now.”
To have the strongest possible legal case, the undercover agent had to see the drugs before his support team could make an arrest. Once he saw the product, he would give a signal. Something too common, like saying “OK,” or too unusual, like raising an arm in the air, might trigger a premature arrest or arouse the suspicions of the dealers.
A man walked over to the SUV with silver rims. The radio buzzed: “U.C. is talking to target, he’s on the driver’s side.” Then it erupted: “He took his hat off. U.C. took his hat off. Hat is off, let’s go, move in.” Almost instantly two SUVs blocked the exit to the parking lot and three men in black tactical vests approached the targets’ vehicle on foot with guns drawn. The undercover officer, or U.C., and one of the suspects raised their hands, and the suspect inside the SUV opened the door and stepped out with his hands raised. Within seconds, a dozen agents were advancing on the scene from all directions. Four SUVs blocked the entrance to the lot, and a patrol car started diverting traffic. The targets were handcuffed and separated; the U.C. was also handcuffed to preserve his cover. The arrest took less than a minute.
The Albuquerque Police Department executes stings involving multiple pounds of product and tens of thousands of dollars roughly once a month. Meth stings happen in Albuquerque far more often than stings for cocaine or any other drug. Two pounds of meth might sell wholesale for around $28,000, but Mexican cartels reduce costs by producing meth in Mexico, whereas cocaine is typically imported from countries south of Mexico. By diluting the purity of those two pounds of meth, lower-level distributors would then increase the quantity of meth and reap additional profits. If the process of dilution and resale happened several times, those two pounds might eventually become eight pounds and yield close to $150,000 in profit. “It’s hard to know how much we disrupt when we take off a few pounds of meth,” Sallee said. “There are estimates that even if we intercepted nine out of every ten loads, the cartels would still make money. And we’re not getting anywhere near ninety percent.”
Mexican cartels have established almost total dominance in the production of meth in the past decade. In 2003, Sallee’s squad dismantled ninety labs in Albuquerque. In 2012, they hit only sixteen labs, and most of those were producing only an ounce or less. Fifteen years ago, narcotics squads would find converted trailers in the New Mexico desert being used to cook several pounds of meth. Now domestic production is mostly limited to micro-batches cooked by users. Smaller batches leave subtler clues. Detectives used to look for hundreds of empty boxes of Sudafed; now three or four might raise suspicion. A portable burner and a funnel in a backpack, a soda bottle filled with liquid and grayish powder, or empty boxes of matches and Sudafed all signal small-scale production. Smaller batches mean smaller stakes for law enforcement. Intercepting two pounds barely makes a dent in supply, so arresting someone cooking an ounce using the so-called “one-pot” method does virtually nothing to decrease the use and sale of meth. Superlabs—typically defined as operations with a production capacity of ten pounds or more per cook—have moved across the border to Mexico.
Sallee and other law enforcement and federal agents I spoke with thought AMC’s dark drama Breaking Bad was a fairly accurate depiction of many aspects of meth in the American Southwest. The show captures the chemical expertise necessary to produce high-quality meth, the drug’s insidious capacity to infiltrate placid suburban communities, the use of front businesses to launder money, the devastating physical effects of the drug, and even the color blue as a signal for high-quality meth. What is less plausible is the premise that a disgruntled chemistry teacher could build a meth empire in Albuquerque and produce vast quantities of meth in a superlab hidden beneath an industrial laundry facility. “Maybe in the late eighties or early nineties something like that could have happened,” Sallee said. Since then, Mexican cartels have flooded New Mexico with cheap, high-quality product. While Breaking Bad does depict the power and reach of cartels, it overstates their readiness to use conspicuous violence on American soil and understates their vast and pervasive control of the market.
Superlabs in the central Mexican state of Michoacan are estimated to produce one hundred pounds of meth per cook. That’s roughly $14,000,000 of wholesale product and many times more after multiple dilutions. And that’s only one cook from one superlab. Multiple superlabs cooking several times a month have flooded the Southwest with relatively cheap meth and have largely removed any incentive for significant production in the U.S. This means that any agency or task force attempting to seriously disrupt the supply and distribution of meth in the Southwest will eventually confront the Mexican cartels.
* * *
“See the scorpion, bro? That’s a cartel sign.” I was driving through a trailer park with a narcotics agent in Farmington, New Mexico, a town of fifty thousand an hour south of the Four Corners area. The palm-sized scorpion sticker was stuck on the back window of an old silver Cadillac. Most of the vehicles in the park were new trucks and SUVs, though average rents are just a few hundred dollars a month.
The trailer park is a hotbed of cartel activity. The agent is part of a secretive multi-agency task force that operates in Farmington. The area is designated a HIDTA, or high-intensity drug trafficking area, which qualifies the task force for federal funding. While Sallee and the APD work a few cases that reach mid-level cartel members, much of their work targets small-scale street dealers and users. The Farmington task force has a more ambitious mandate: to dismantle and disrupt DTOs, or drug trafficking organizations. The agent I interviewed often works undercover, so he declined to have his name used in print. He looked like a guy who would not raise much suspicion if he tried to buy meth. His arms were thoroughly tattooed, his beard thick, and his baseball cap pulled low over his face. “Our guys tend to look like just your typical scumbag,” his boss said. As we drove slowly through the trailer park, the agent told me about the structure of the groups he penetrates.
“Cartel members work in cells,” he said. “Usually three to five members per cell, and the cells work in isolation. It’s not unlike the structure of some terrorist groups. You’ll have one guy who handles the money, one in charge of the dope, one does the driving, one knows English.” I asked him to trace the path of a single shipment of meth from production to final sale. “Start in a superlab in Mexico, next it crosses the border, maybe stashed in a door panel or engine, and goes to a house in Phoenix. You and I, from here to Phoenix is a six-hour drive. They’ll take a ten-hour route with all these weird, small roads. These are passed-down routes. A lot of times they’ll have two cars: a load and a lookout. Something goes wrong, the lookout does everything he can to get pulled over and the load car drives on up the road.”
He was reluctant to share specific tactics on gathering intelligence or logistical details of cells currently operating in the area. It was unlikely that any cell members would read this article, but cartels do keep lawyers and detectives on retainer to search public records for patterns in arrest warrants, listen to police scanners, and research the law enforcement personnel working narcotics in an area. The task force has an often-repeated mantra: there are ten ways to ruin a case. Talk about it, talk about it, talk about it…. So instead of talking about a particular case, he described a hypothetical family that was a composite of various actual cases.
“Let’s imagine the fictitious Martinez family. They’ve been here for thirty years. Maybe they own a pump business. Some are dirty, some are clean. Maybe a clean family member will rent a trailer in his name. That guy has a sister, and her husband’s cousin is in one of these cells, and he ends up using the trailer. Some people in the family may not even know what’s going on. Maybe the utilities are in the name of another guy in the cell, but it’s a false name. They change names and phones all the time to be harder to track. We try to look at patterns, habits, schedules. These trailers keep operating hours like a normal business. Your average deal will last maybe a minute. They’ll have a guy that can count two or three thousand in a heartbeat, then you’re out of there.”
Certain patterns are more obvious than others. If someone without a job pays cash for a $40,000 SUV or wires $600-$900 to Mexico every other day, he’ll arouse suspicion. But if the Martinez family is sufficiently large and accommodating, it could absorb tens of thousands of dollars in a few months without attracting attention. When a U.C. succeeds in penetrating a cell and his team makes an arrest, the goal is typically to persuade suspects to become confidential informants who will reveal incriminating information about higher levels of a cartel. Cartels protect against this threat in two ways. First, they’re structured to ensure that members of a cell know as little as possible. Cells work in isolation, rotate members every few months, and keep members ignorant of organizational levels above them. A cell member may have a name and phone number of a guy in Phoenix, but it’s likely that the name is false and that the number will be changed by the time a U.C. tries to contact him. If someone does know potentially damaging information, cartels may threaten to kill a family member in Mexico if he turns informant. Though these threats are sometimes credible, it’s hard to know when family members are actually in danger. “Everyone says, ‘Oh, they’ll kill my family if I talk.’ We try to do research and corroborate these claims, but it’s not always clear whether someone is telling the truth.”
This difficulty reflects two problems raised by the use of informants. The information they provide is not always trustworthy, and extracting it sometimes endangers informants or their families. But without the evidence and leads they supply, most meth investigations would be impossible.
One of the informants who works with the agent I met was a man in his early forties who asked to be called Paco. We met under the shade of a cottonwood in a parking lot behind a baseball stadium. He was born and raised in Farmington, and his family was known for making trouble in town. “Everyone knows us around here. We’re always doing something crazy, raising all kinds of hell.” Eight years ago, he had been driving to Phoenix every two weeks in a rental car and buying meth from a Mexican man in a motel. Paco got the money for the purchases from a cousin in Farmington. At first it was five or six thousand per trip, but gradually the amount increased until he was going to Phoenix with $35,000 in hundreds, fifties, and twenties and returning with over a pound of meth. His cousin in Farmington paid him with meth, so he never saw any profit from the deals. He packed the meth in Ziploc bags and put the bags in the bottom of a cooler for the drive from Farmington to Phoenix. Sometimes he’d take back roads through the Indian Reservation, but it was impossible to avoid major highways entirely.
He’d been making the trip for over a year when he was pulled over. A search of the vehicle revealed over a pound of meth. The quantity of meth and the fact that he was transferring meth across state lines qualified the case for federal prosecution, which carries tougher mandatory minimum sentences. He was given a choice: serve thirty years or lead agents to his cousin.
Paco had never liked his cousin. “He’s one of them bully types. One of them crazy ones. He’ll come to your house and kick your ass if you owe him twenty dollars.” Paco tipped off a police raid that caught his cousin with $80,000 in cash, several pounds of meth, and over two hundred firearms. He also arranged a sting to catch the seller at the motel in Phoenix. “These guys were in the next room doing video and voice surveillance. I had a wire and when they told me to go to the bathroom they came in and busted him. Two times in Phoenix them Mexican guys had Uzis. I’d make ‘em put the guns under the mattress before we did a deal.”
Informants receive lighter sentences, but they also run considerable risks. Sergeant Phil Goodwin, Chief of the Farmington task force, said that an investigation is only effective if informants are kept safe. But Paco’s case illustrates some of the dangers informants inevitably face. “Everyone knew when I got busted, so some of my family don’t talk to me now cause of what happened. Most of ‘em won’t do nothing. But my cousin’s sons I worry about. He told ‘em he’d give $20,000 for my head.”
During the discovery phase of a trial defense attorneys can demand access to possible witnesses who will testify against their clients. Though it’s illegal to share the names of informants with those they informed against, Paco claimed to know of corrupt lawyers who reveal the names of informants. Paco said that this happened twice in his case. “Two people know for sure. Lawyers told ‘em. And then there’s all these rumors and bullshit.”
A few months before we met, Paco’s sister-in-law was stabbed eighteen times in a Farmington laundromat. He thinks that he was meant to be the target but that the assailant was too high on meth to realize she was attacking the wrong person. The attacker fled the scene and was eventually caught after crawling through the dog door of a suburban home, tracking blood throughout the house, and washing off in the Jacuzzi. His sister-in-law lived, but the incident prompted Paco to start planning a move to Colorado. But as part of his contract with police he must continue his work as an informant for an unspecified period.
Working with informants also poses risks for law enforcement agents. “In general, you’ve got to treat C.I.s with some caution,” Goodwin told me. “They know some of our tactics, like how someone is wired. Maybe they’re a C.I. this week, but they could be a target next week. They could put someone in the trees to take photos when they meet one of us, and then one of my guys is exposed.”
Goodwin’s team has found names and photos of agents in the homes of suspects while executing search warrants. They’ve also noticed increasing sophistication in the counter-surveillance methods cartels are using. “Meth is a billion-dollar industry. With that kind of money, you can afford to hire good people. They use ex-military guys, guys with professional training in surveillance techniques.” Goodwin has internalized certain habits of vigilance. He always locates exits when he enters any space. And he always sits facing the door in restaurants. He reveals as little as possible about his work, even to family members. The location of his office is undisclosed; not even other law enforcement agencies know where it is. He’s never told his wife where his office is located, and he never discusses work at home. If his kids are going down the driveway to get the mail, they lock the door behind them.
Working undercover also requires certain skills and precautions. A dealer might offer a U.C. a hit of meth to seal the exchange. Declining without rousing suspicion demands a talent for improvisation. Sometimes a dealer will suddenly insist on changing the venue of a deal, leaving a U.C. without any backup in the area. “You’ve got to roll with it,” the bearded and tattooed U.C. who works with Paco told me. “Maybe you’re like, ‘Naw, man, come on, I told you I borrowed my mom’s car today and I gotta get it back to her. I don’t got time to go somewhere else.’ You gotta think about the role you’re playing. If I’m a baller, and somebody offers me a hit, then why wouldn’t I take it? I don’t need the money I could make from selling it. But maybe I’m not a baller. Maybe I need that money.” Spending time around C.I.s makes it easier for a U.C. to pick up the slang of meth and its users. There’s a teener, an eightball, a gram. You slam it or you smoke it. On the phone, you might ask for a six-pack of coke to initiate a purchase. But knowing the language and playing a part hasn’t made him overly sympathetic to users. “You hear all sorts of stories and excuses for how someone’s life ended up with them selling and using. But the truth is never arbitrary. You can’t bend it to fit your beliefs. No, dude, you’re a drug dealer. Own it and let’s move on.”
The investigations that Goodwin and his team build have resulted in substantial seizures. The largest amount they ever confiscated was eleven pounds of meth, close to $700,000 of product. This hit dismantled a midlevel rung of a cartel, but the effect was only temporary. Even midlevel cartel members are somewhat expendable. “The higher-level people,” Goodwin said, “they’re going to be somewhere else.”
* * *
Paul Chavez works in a bland office building in southeast Albuquerque. The area was meant to be a suburb of twenty-five thousand homes, but the developers ran out of money. Dirt roads are still carved into the desert hills, but only a few buildings interrupt the landscape. Dust storms and tumbleweed blow through every afternoon.
Chavez is the Intelligence Director for the HIDTA-funded Investigative Support Center. He leads a team of analysts who support investigations by the DEA and various narcotics task forces. His team doesn’t gather intelligence in the field; they do research and analysis to support the investigations of the DEA and special task forces throughout the Southwest. His job is to notice the subtle clues and patterns that agents in the field often miss.
He worked in the field as a detective with the APD for many years, but eventually he became bored with the work. One time he was in the parking lot of a bar with some other narcotics agents. They all wore black vests with the word POLICE printed across the front. Despite the vests, a guy walked up and tried to sell them hash. “With some of the low-hanging fruit, you’re dealing with people so stupid it just gets boring. From the hunter and hunted perspective, this work is much more interesting,” he said.
Chavez was reluctant to discuss an active investigation, so he told me an intricate story that is a composite of real meth cases. He asked me to imagine a guy in Albuquerque named Joe. Joe is one of the five biggest dealers in the city. “Joe drives a Honda Civic and has a fat wife, and he’s probably messing around with someone else on the side.” He lives in a modest house in a middle-class neighborhood. He owns at least one tire repair shop, a cash-heavy business that makes it easy to invent receipts and launder money. “Guys with blinged-out SUVs and fancy houses, they’re not too smart.” If Joe is smart, he always pays cash to his supplier, a guy in Los Angeles. “Most drug violence happens because of fronted dope. Maybe somebody vouches for Joe, so the cartel guy in L.A. gives him $50,000 of meth. Say Joe is unlucky. His lieutenant gets pulled over and loses the meth. If Joe can’t repay that $50,000, he gets beat up and never sold to again. If it’s more money, maybe he gets killed.”
For a $50,000 investment, Joe gets two kilos (4.4 lbs) of meth. From that quantity he can make $120,000, netting $70,000 in profit. Joe’s meth is made in a superlab concealed in a small warehouse in Michoachan. The two largest deep-water ports in Mexico are in Michoachan, which makes it easier to unload precursor chemicals shipped from India or China. The Knights Templar cartel controls the lab, which required several hundred thousand dollars of initial investment. The lab produces 50 kilos a week and is run by two guys, one with a degree in chemical engineering and another with a decade of experience cooking meth. Once the 50 kilos leave the lab, they must pass through the territory of the cartel Pacifico Sur and the Sinaloa cartel.
The 50 kilos are divided into five loads of ten kilos, each of which pays a $7,000 tax at each of four tax points. The loads end up in the hands of a Tijuana cartel that specializes in smuggling drugs across the border. To make the crossing, the cartel might try to bribe a customs official with the lure of $10,000 a week. For someone making $31,000 per year, this is often an irresistible offer. If a bribed official is working the day of the crossing, the driver might get a call telling him to be in lane six between one and two PM on Saturday. Without a bribed official, a halcyon, or eagle, will watch the entry point with binoculars for patterns and opportunities. If he notices the official in lane four is fighting with his wife on the phone and waving all the cars through without inspection, he’ll radio this information to the driver.
The shipments are taken to a stash house in a suburb of Los Angeles controlled by a high-level member of the Michoachan cartel. From the stash house, they are shipped around the country. Joe knows very little about his source in L.A. If the source in L.A. is smart, he doesn’t deal directly with Joe; an assistant handles all transactions with distributors. Joe was introduced to the assistant by his brother’s friend, who served time with him in prison. After Joe’s initial investment of $50,000 yields a profit of $70,000, he reinvests the money, ordering four kilos this time.
Joe has six to ten employees. They sell to the street level dealers who sell to the end users, but these employees are not users themselves. If they start using meth, they are no longer employees. If Joe is smart, his employees never meet him. They don’t know his phone number or where he lives or even his real name. Joes delegates all interactions with these employees to a single trusted associate, an old childhood friend. His employees are not allowed to spend money in extravagant or obvious ways. They drive old cars and live in normal neighborhoods.
The DEA wants Joe and his supplier in California. The APD focuses on street level dealers and users. They both target Joe’s six to ten employees, but the DEA wants them only as a means to getting Joe. One day Joe’s trusted associate gets pulled over on a routine traffic stop. The arresting officer follows a hunch and calls in a canine search unit that happens to be in the area. They find a few ounces of meth in the car and detain him for twenty four hours. By the time the DEA interrogates him, they’ve learned from Chavez’s unit that his mom is dying of cancer. They tell him it would be a shame for him to spend the last months of her life in prison. There’s a way for that not to happen: he just needs to tell them about his friend Joe. Joe will try to kill his associate if he knows he’s facing a life sentence. The associate doesn’t return Joe’s calls for the twenty-four hours that he’s in detention, and Joe starts to get suspicious. The associate tells Joe that he ran into an old buddy and went fishing at Lake Huron. But if Joe knows a corrupt clerk at the Metropolitan Detention Center he can confirm that the associate was actually there. If he learns this, he kills the associate. If not, maybe Joe goes to prison.
“There might be five to seven Joes in Albuquerque at any given time. Three to four of those are probably on our radar.” Chavez might identify a Joe after becoming suspicious that a tire repair shop reported 2.4 million in revenue to the IRS. The IRS might mount a pole camera across the street from the shop to monitor the volume of customers, but if Joe is smart he’ll have his friends come by the garage regularly to create the appearance of a thriving business; they’ll close the door and have a beer.
“The longer Joe goes without getting caught doesn’t necessarily mean it’s more likely that he will. I guarantee there are Joes who have made eight to ten million and are now retired and living quietly in Albuquerque. The smarter Joe is, the more insulated he is from the effects of what he does. There may be a turf dispute between two small dealers in the southeast part of town. He reads the next morning in the paper that somebody got shot and he thinks, ‘God, that part of town is going to shit.’ He doesn’t know it was his meth they were selling. The supplier in California will be similarly insulated. The California supplier is high-level cartel. If he’s a genius, we’ll never catch him. He’ll be surrounded by too many expendables who don’t know anything about him.”
* * *
One of the people Joe would never hear about is Cassie Johnston. She grew up in a small town about twenty miles south of Albuquerque. She first tried meth as a fifteen-year-old in the welding shop at Los Lunas High School. Her first time was terrifying: “It scared the crap out of me. I couldn’t sleep, eat, or concentrate for thirty six hours. I went home and pretended to sleep but I felt like I was going ninety miles per hour in neutral.” About six months later she tried it again at a party and liked it more. After that she used meth once or twice a week until she graduated from high school. “I pawned things, I had a job, but it’s not expensive or hard to get meth.” Initially her parents attributed her erratic behavior to typical teenage rebelliousness.
Two days after graduating, she disappeared, and they didn’t hear from her for several months. She’d moved in with her boyfriend, a small-time dealer who supplied her habit free of charge. Soon she was delivering meth to his clients. “I sold drugs to PTA moms, doctors, lawyers, high school teachers, all kinds of people. Meth is not biased. It doesn’t care who you are, how much money you have, what your parents do. It will kill you just as quick as anything else.” One day her boyfriend went to Albuquerque and never returned. She knew he had borrowed money from the Mexican guys who supplied his meth, and she figured he had lost the money and fled the area before they could find him. About three weeks later she walked to a gas station a mile from her house. In the parking lot, three Mexican guys told her to get into a black Buick. One had a gun in his waist band. They drove her to a warehouse and locked her inside. A mattress and a jug of water sat in one corner. The next day they returned and explained that she would sell meth until she had worked off her boyfriend’s debt. Each day she drove out on deals with one of the Mexicans tailing her in the black Buick and collecting all the money she made. Each night, she was locked in the warehouse. Her diet was bread, apples and water. The Mexican guys also gave her as much meth as she wanted.
She was rescued after about a month when her dad spotted her in town and called a detective friend. They lost the tail car and took her home. She stashed her car in a hidden spot and didn’t leave her parent’s house for a month. When she was rescued she weighed only 97 pounds, down from 135 pounds before.
Cassie has not used meth since 2007. She never heard from her old boyfriend again, and she has cut herself off from almost all of the people she knew while using. She works as a massage therapist and a counselor for a teen therapy program. She still has cravings for meth, but they’re not as powerful as they were during her first two years after quitting.She thinks of herself as an example of the indiscriminate destruction meth causes. “I’m total proof that kids are not just the product of their environment. I grew up with two parents, nev
er wanted for a thing, went to church once a week. I still did it.” Current and former users tend to describe meth as an almost supernatural force, something with a limitless power to harm and destroy. Even after recovery, former users remain vulnerable. The mother of one addict lost her son after he had been clean for almost two years. He died of heart complications that were a legacy of meth’s impact on his health. An informant in Albuquerque summed up the feelings of many users and family members whose lives have been disrupted by meth: “If you believe in heaven and hell and good and bad, then one thing’s for sure: meth is the Devil’s drug.”