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Liquid meth the newest way to fool border agents

Posted: June 14, 2014 7:59 p.m.
Updated: June 14, 2014 7:59 p.m.

In this March 2014 photo provided by PARC Environmental, Jeff Davis, a hazardous materials specialist for PARC Environmental, cleans up a meth conversion lab inside a house in Madera, Calif.

 

Law-enforcement officials say they’ve detected a new wrinkle in the cross-border trafficking of methamphetamine: drug makers are creating a liquid form of meth to more easily smuggle it into the United States from Mexico.

Dissolved in a solution, the liquid meth can then be sealed in tequila bottles or plastic detergent containers to fool border agents and traffic officers, U.S. authorities say.

Once on this side of the border, the liquid meth is processed into crystals at small conversion labs, often located in residential neighborhoods, officials said.

“There’s no end to the creativity to getting the drug to market when there’s demand,” said Eric L. Olson, a Latin America researcher at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington, D.C.

Turning to liquid meth is just the latest innovation for transporting drugs for profit, he said. Smugglers have used tunnels, submarines, drones and once, Olson said, a 90-year-old farmer was used as a decoy.

Olson said he witnessed agents seize liquid meth disguised in soda bottles during a 2012 tour of the border crossing at Laredo, Texas.

Calls to the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Station’s narcotics unit to see whether officials have encountered liquid meth locally were not returned Friday.

But U.S. Department of Homeland Security Agent Mike Prado told The Associated Press that conversion labs have been increasingly cropping up in California neighborhoods. His agents have found them in densely populated apartment buildings and foreclosed homes.

Some of the conversion operations have caught fire or exploded, he said.

In the conversion process, cooks evaporate off the liquid and use highly combustible chemicals such as acetone to make crystals. The fumes are trapped inside.

“A spark can turn this into a fireball,” Prado said.

Investigators say it’s impossible to know how much liquid meth crosses the border, but border control agents say they have been seeing more of it in the past few years.

In late 2012 a California Highway Patrol officer pulled over a 20-year-old man on Interstate 5 who said he was headed to Oregon from Southern California and seemed nervous. The officer found 15 bottles in the trunk full of dissolved meth but labeled as Mexican tequila.

The man pleaded guilty to drug trafficking and received a federal prison sentence of 46 months.

Three men were indicted last year and await trial after a drug task force found 12 gallons of liquid meth in a Fresno house, along with 42 pounds of the drug ready for sale, four guns and 5,000 rounds of ammunition.

Prado said law enforcement agencies are always on the lookout for creative ways cartels smuggle meth.

“We’ve become better at detecting certain things,” Prado said. “When they catch on to that, they modify their methods.”

John Donnelly, until recently in charge of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s Fresno office, said agents all over the country have tracked liquid meth to California’s Central Valley.

“We’re the source point for Seattle, Portland, Alaska and as far east as the Carolinas,” Donnelly said.

Liquid meth conversion labs also have been found in San Bernardino, where two men were arrested last month when investigators found a conversion lab, 206 pounds of crystal meth and 250 gallons of the liquid capable of producing 1,250 pounds of crystals.

The seized drugs, which investigators suspect came from Mexico, were valued at $7.2 million.

Not all liquid meth makes it across the border. Last year, a 16-year-old from Mexico was stopped at the crossing near San Diego. He volunteered to take “a big sip” to convince inspectors the liquid he had was only apple juice, not meth. The teenager began screaming in pain and died within hours.

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