DRCNet Response to the
Drug Enforcement Administration
Methamphetamine Situation in the United States

Production and Trafficking


The suppliers of methamphetamine in the United States traditionally have been outlaw motorcycle gangs and numerous other independent trafficking groups. While they continue to produce methamphetamine and control a share of the market, methamphetamine smuggling into the United States from Mexico is controlled primarily by the same major organizations that dominate the production/trafficking of other illicit drugs from Mexico into the United States. These groups are composed of combinations of Mexican nationals residing in Mexico and the United States, Mexican-Americans who operate on either side of the border, and illegal aliens residing in the United States. Often, these organizations are directed by well-established families that have been involved in smuggling contraband for decades. They produce and/or transport large quantities of cocaine, heroin, and marijuana into the United States on a daily basis. They regularly demonstrate their flexibility and adaptability, modifying smuggling routes and methods as needed to handle virtually any drug. Currently, the younger generation within some of these families has expanded into methamphetamine trafficking.

These groups almost exclusively use the ephedrine reduction method and have become large-scale importers of ephedrine into Mexico, some of which is transported into the United States.

There are numerous border points of entry for Mexican-produced methamphetamine and ephedrine into the United States. The most common method of transporting methamphetamine across the border is via passenger vehicles. The passenger vehicles most frequently used to smuggle methamphetamine are cars, but also include pickup trucks and 4-wheel drive vehicles.

Domestically, methamphetamine is distributed by a wide array of organizations that vary greatly in size, structure, and degree of sophistication - from small, local independent groups that operate on a limited scale to large organizations that control all aspects of the traffic. Intelligence indicates that many of the newly established distribution networks around the country are being supplied by sources in California that receive methamphetamine and ephedrine. In addition, as previously described, there are organizations involved solely in chemical acquisition. Organized crime drug groups operating from Mexico control distribution in many areas of the West and Southwest. For example, these groups operating from Mexico have been identified as operating in areas of the Denver, Houston, Phoenix, Seattle, and St. Louis Field Divisions, beyond their strongholds in California and Mexico. As previously stated, recent intelligence indicates that traffickers from Mexico are supplying Asian organizations/gangs on the West Coast and Hawaii with ephedrine and methamphetamine for the manufacture of ice.

There can be no question but that the large-scale move by these organized crime drug groups operating from Mexico into methamphetamine production is a conscious decision of the leaders of these powerful organizations. Should demand for methamphetamine in the United States continue to increase, these trafficking organizations are in a position to control the smuggling and distribution of the drug into and within the United States.

The upsurge in methamphetamine trafficking has been accompanied by an increase in violence. For example, in San Diego a methamphetamine distribution organization was implicated in at least 26 murders committed during a 6 month period in 1993. This violence was fueled by an ongoing turf battle between two rival methamphetamine distribution organizations that began with the murder of one of the organizations' leaders.

Major Methamphetamine Trafficking Organizations

The extensive involvement of polydrug trafficking organizations from Mexico in methamphetamine production and distribution has redefined the methamphetamine problem in the United States. There are several reasons why organized crime groups operating from Mexico have been able to achieve dominance of the methamphetamine market: these organizations established access to wholesale ephedrine sources of supply on the international market; these organizations are producing unprecedented quantities of high-purity methamphetamine on a regular basis; and, these polydrug organizations control well-established cocaine, heroin, and marijuana distribution networks throughout the western United States, enabling them to supply methamphetamine to a large retail-level market. Presently, these organizations are poised to supply methamphetamine to the rest of the country in response to any increases in demand. The major methamphetamine trafficking organizations operating from Mexico include:

The major Mexican trafficking groups outlined above operate within a fluid, flexible, and elastic system. Alliances shift or shake-ups in the hierarchy occur with the divergence of interests and eruptions of internecine violence. But while the precise roles of specific groups and individual group members often blur, there is an overarching structure within which drug trafficking operates: the Federation.

The Federation evolved from the Guadalajara cartel, which was formed in the 1980's by Rafael CARO-Quintero and Miguel FELIX-Gallardo in order to ship heroin and marijuana to the United States. Among the first of the Mexican drug trafficking groups to work with the Colombian cocaine mafias, the Guadalajara cartel prospered from the cocaine trade, eventually broadening into today's Federation. Currently, its leadership consists of Chapo GUZMAN and Hector PALMA-Salazar (both jailed in Mexico) and Amado CARRILLO-Fuentes, now the dominant force. The ARELLANO-Felix brothers - laying claim to FELIX-Gallardo's former leadership position and by virtue of their control over smuggling in Sonora - also are battling for influence.

As a loose consortium of smuggling groups, the Federation generally functions in the following manner:

Regional Trafficking Trends


In general, most methamphetamine is transported into the Northeast from outside suppliers, distribution remains in the hands of traditional outlaw motorcycle gangs, such as the Hell's Angels, and the user population has remained stable. Nevertheless, there are slight indications of an emerging group of younger, independent entrepreneurs distributing methamphetamine. A handful of recent investigations, for instance, have demonstrated local distributors' connections to California- and Mexico-based methamphetamine suppliers.

The region's current methamphetamine problem pales in comparison to that experienced in other regions of the country. Only in the Philadelphia area has methamphetamine surfaced as a serious concern. Four groups have been identified as active in its manufacture (primarily using the P2P method) and distribution: traditional organized crime groups operating in southern New Jersey as well as Philadelphia; Afro-American criminal gangs; outlaw motorcycle gangs, namely the Pagans, Breed, and Warlocks; and independent operators. Some production spilled over into New Jersey, where six laboratories were seized in 1995. But, overall, the New Jersey-New York area has remained relatively untouched by methamphetamine trafficking. Case statistics from New York for 1995 typify the limited scope of the problem in the region: of the over 3,000 cases initiated by DEA's New York Field Division, only 25 involved methamphetamine; the New York State Police had only 15 methamphetamine-related cases during the year, all stemming from motor vehicle stops; and of the over 45,000 drug-related arrests made by the New York City Police Department, only 5 involved methamphetamine. Methamphetamine trafficking in the Boston area still is controlled by outlaw motorcycle gangs, but availability is limited.

Despite limited methamphetamine trafficking and production in the Northeast, the large number of chemical companies in the region makes it difficult for law enforcement to deny methamphetamine manufacturers access to precursor chemicals.


Methamphetamine availability has increased significantly throughout the Southeast over the last 2 years. Law enforcement agencies in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Tennessee all reported increases in methamphetamine seizures and case initiations. The Arkansas State Police, for example, reported that methamphetamine-related cases rose from 543 in 1988 to over 2,000 in 1995. In Atlanta, methamphetamine has been transformed from "poor man's cocaine" to the drug of choice in upscale nightclubs. It is more profitable for sellers than cocaine.

Methamphetamine supplied from the West Coast has surpassed local production as the leading source for regional distribution. Florida law enforcement officials indicate that the current methamphetamine problem is fueled by Mexican trafficking groups that engage California-based suppliers and exploit existing marijuana distribution channels. Florida officials, who have witnessed a decline in clandestine methamphetamine laboratories since 1992, anticipate an increase in clandestine manufacture activity as drug trafficking organizations from Mexico become further entrenched in regional methamphetamine distribution. In Atlanta and other regional cities, Mexican drug trafficking organizations are using established cocaine distribution networks to move methamphetamine. Traffickers most commonly transport methamphetamine by vehicle along interstate highways. In addition, couriers traveling on commercial airlines are used to smuggle the drug from the West Coast, particularly into Florida where couriers using rail services also are being encountered.

In contrast to the general regional trend toward reliance on outside suppliers, clandestine methamphetamine production continues in Arkansas, south Alabama, and sections of Tennessee. Manufacturers in these areas tend to be rural, low-income whites. In Alabama, white supremacists are active in methamphetamine production, while in Tennessee some third generation bootleggers have taken to methamphetamine production as their grandfathers took to moonshining and their fathers took to the marijuana trade. Regional groups involved in methamphetamine production are increasingly violent, well-armed, and knowledgeable about explosives.


Areas of the upper Midwest have been hard hit by the spiraling growth of methamphetamine trafficking and use. In Iowa, methamphetamine is cited as a contributing factor in an estimated 80 percent of domestic violence cases, and as a major reason behind violent crime. The user population consists primarily of young white adults from lower-middle income families. Many start by snorting methamphetamine and progress to injecting. In one year, from 1993 to 1994, methamphetamine seizures rose 4,000 percent in the city of Des Moines. Methamphetamine cases now account for 80 percent of the police department's drug investigations. Most of the methamphetamine available in the upper Midwest is trafficked by Mexican-controlled criminal organizations - connected to sources of supply in California and Mexico - that are based in smaller Midwestern cities with existing Mexican-American populations. Smuggling routes into the region incorporate a variety of transportation means, but the profit is a constant: a pound of methamphetamine purchased in California for $5,000 sells for as much as $16,000 in Iowa.

Methamphetamine is also a leading drug of abuse in Missouri. Local clandestine manufacture furnishes most of the supply, and it is supplemented by California-based sources. Law enforcement agencies regularly seize clandestine methamphetamine laboratories throughout Missouri, where, without exception, they encounter caches of weapons.


Arizona's methamphetamine problem has exploded recently. As noted in the national overview above, in Phoenix methamphetamine-related deaths increased from 20 in 1992 to 122 in 1994, a 570 percent jump. Law enforcement officials blame the upsurge in trafficking and related violence on Mexican trafficking groups and their associates, who now make up 80 percent of methamphetamine arrests. The California-Arizona border has become the focus for law enforcement, as interstate highways are used increasingly to move methamphetamine from suppliers in California to Arizona.

In the Pacific Northwest, Mexican-based drug trafficking organizations are spearheading methamphetamine distribution along established black tar heroin and cocaine networks. Since 1993, methamphetamine traffickers have stretched their routes from California to Oregon in 1994 to suppliers, now purchase from the Mexican trafficking organizations. Accompanying the influx into the Northwest have been drive-by shootings, assaults, and other acts of violence spawned by the methamphetamine trade. Parts of Colorado similarly have been inundated in methamphetamine and violence. In Lakewood, a Denver suburb, as much as 90 percent of the city's assaults and weapons crimes in 1995 were linked to methamphetamine trafficking and use. The escalation in local methamphetamine trafficking has generated its own criminal subculture. Violence - not only homicides, but kidnappings, mutilations, and torture - is a core element.

Officer safety and health are top priorities for the California Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement (BNE). The Hazardous Materials Transportation Act governs how hazardous materials (hazmat) are to be moved, stored, and transported. To protect officials, the law requires adequate and appropriate equipment to safeguard against chemical contaminants. The law also ensures that officials undergo periodic medical testing, beginning with a "baseline test," which provides a profile of the employee's health before he or she ever is exposed to a laboratory. In addition, the law mandates that hazmat teams be given 40 hours of initial training, followed by 3 days of field experience, and a one-time 8-hour refresher course. Finally, the law requires that the medical files of officers be kept for 30 years after their retirement.

California has one of the nation's most progressive chemical control programs, backed by aggressive laws. Together, Federal and California controls have disrupted the illicit drug and chemical trades. California authorities, for instance, say that since ephedrine was placed under control, illicit chemical markets have been depleted. This has forced traffickers to search for ways to preserve their ephedrine supplies. Typically, clandestine laboratory sites contain only empty premeasured bags that once contained the chemical.

In over 20 years, while fighting methamphetamine trafficking, BNE and other State agencies have learned many of the needs and challenges of an effective counterdrug strategy. BNE has adopted a comprehensive strategy for clandestine laboratory enforcement, an aggressive chemical control program, a progressive laboratory safety program, and improved information sharing with Federal, State, and local counterparts. Still, BNE warns other law enforcers to prepare for the direct and indirect costs of fighting methamphetamine. Among them are the dangers of clandestine laboratories, environmental damage, difficulties in storing laboratory evidence, and the enormous cost of cleanup and chemical removal. The initial cost just to remove a chemical from a laboratory averages $7,000. In 1988, BNE budgeted $147,000 for cleanup of clandestine laboratories. In 1995, the agency spent $2.4 million dollars for cleanup.


Drug-related violence usually appears in one of three ways: by users under the influence of the drug, by users who commit violent acts to obtain money or more of the drug, and by distributors who use violence in the course of conducting their business.

Every community with a methamphetamine abuse problem has experienced violence in some form, most commonly appearing as domestic disputes. For example, police in Contra Costa County, California, report that methamphetamine is involved in almost 90 percent of the domestic dispute cases investigated by that agency. The extreme agitation and paranoia associated with use of the stimulant often lead to situations where violence is more likely to occur. Chronic use of methamphetamine can cause delusions and auditory hallucinations that precipitate violent behavior or response.

However, due to the expansion of the methamphetamine trade by organized crime drug groups operating from Mexico, violence associated with distribution of the drug - used as a means of intimidation, retaliation, and discipline - also has been on the rise in many areas of the country.

Methamphetamine traffickers' disputes, acts of retribution, and attempts to eliminate competition have led to violence and murder that echo the gruesomeness of the mid-1980's crack gang turf wars. For example, in 1993, Victor Marron was found dead in Chula Vista, California, shot execution-style. The intended victim in this attack actually was his brother, Nico Marron, a former gang member who - through use of violence - had become a major methamphetamine trafficker and distributor in the San Diego area. Nico responded to his brother's killing by launching a bloodbath that resulted in 26 deaths in San Diego and Mexico within a 6-month period.

Violence of this magnitude has become an alarming characteristic of the methamphetamine trade. Increasingly, the major methamphetamine traffickers operating from Mexico recruit local U.S. street gangs to distribute methamphetamine in many areas of the country.


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