It started with a scheduled buy. Authorities say the 27-year-old man with tattoos covering a quarter of his face had more than 200 grams of methamphetamine stuffed in his striped, button-down shirt. He had more than $1,500 in cash.
He went to a hotel near Interstate 75 and Shallowford Road to make the deal.
It never happened.
Federal agents from the Drug Enforcement Agency; Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; and local investigators with Chattanooga police picked him up.
Armando “Scarface” Campos, of Dalton, Ga., initially was charged with possession of methamphetamine in state court. On Tuesday, Campos was federally indicted on charges of conspiring to manufacture and distribute 500 grams or more of a mixture containing methamphetamine and attempting to distribute 50 grams or more of a mixture and substance containing methamphetamine. If convicted, he faces from 10 years to life — without parole — depending on his previous record.
But what was different about this bust was the drug involved. It was a different kind of meth, a designer form that is more potent and cheaper than the variety produced locally.
Mexican meth or “ice,” as this designer form is known, is typically made in superlabs in Mexico, and sometimes domestically. It’s not a new drug, but its use is growing in the United States and more is expected to be seen in the Chattanooga area.
The meth that police said they found on Campos was conservatively priced at $200 per gram, but on the street, the purity found in the product could easily bring twice that, according to authorities.
The challenge for investigators is the quantities in which this meth can be produced.
A small, local meth lab might be able to produce a couple of ounces. A superlab can turn 10 pounds every 24 hours, according to a federal Government Accountability Office report presented to Congress this year.
And Tennessee offers a ready market for ice.
The hunger for meth outstrips supply in the state despite numerous lab seizures.
“Local labs cannot feed the demand for meth,” said Tommy Farmer, director of the Tennessee Methamphetamine and Pharmaceutical Task Force.
WHAT’S BEHIND THE RISE
Why the rise in the use of Mexican meth?
Domestic meth production increased in 2007, two years after Mexico passed laws to restrict and eventually ban the importation of pseudoephedrine, according to a report from the Offices of Education Research and Accountability, an arm of the state comptroller’s office. However, by 2008 Mexican drug organizations had learned how to bypass import bans. Mexican production of ice surged in 2009.
Meanwhile, there was no decrease in meth production in the United States.
“This may be due in part to increased demand for methamphetamine and to the ability of individuals and groups to avoid U.S. precursor access restrictions,” the report states.
Meth can be snorted, injected, taken orally and smoked. Tennessee addicts use homemade and imported products from south of the border. Nationwide, 80 percent of meth comes from Mexico.
The number of border seizures of the drug has increased, according to a report assessing the country’s greatest drug threats and trends released this month by DEA.
“Methamphetamine prices decreased more than 70 percent between the third quarter of 2007 and the second quarter of 2012; during that time methamphetamine purity increased almost 130 percent,” the report states.
A rise in the use of Mexican meth is believed to be behind those changes.
The product authorities say they confiscated from Campos had traveled from Mexico by way of Atlanta to Dalton, Ga., and finally to Chattanooga along I-75.
“The Mexican meth has made it into this area,” said Bradley County Sheriff Jim Ruth. “It’s definitely a growing problem. It’s better stuff. It’s cheaper.”
Yet most addicts in Tennessee still rely on a local supply, according to a report issued this year by the state comptroller’s office.
Even though Tennessee implemented a tracking system for pseudoephedrine purchases in 2006 and switched to a private system a little more than a year ago, meth labs in the state continue to thrive.
Tennessee ranks third in the nation for lab seizures, year to date. Missouri ranks first, followed by Indiana. Tennessee has remained in the top three for the past seven years, Farmer said.
“[Meth cooks] have major organized smurfing operations that acquire pseudoephedrine from pharmacies to fuel locally manufactured meth,” Farmer said. Smurfing is when meth cooks get others to purchase pseudoephedrine to circumvent checks in the database.
The result in the Volunteer State is a problem of huge proportions.
Last year, Tennessee spent $1.6 billion on meth-related costs, Ruth said.
Authorities are trying to combat the problem on a number of fronts.
This week local legislators paired up with lobbyist organizations — which have interests in keeping pseudoephedrine an over-the-counter drug — to kick off an anti-smurfing campaign to create awareness.
Over the years, proposed state legislation to require a prescription to purchase pseudoephedrine has failed.
House Bill 368 is set for consideration before the subcommittee of the state Legislature’s Criminal Justice Committee next year after it was deferred this year.
“We’ve said if you want to stop labs, return pseudoephedrine to a controlled substance,” Farmer said.
Investigators argue that stopping local sources of meth would save the state millions of dollars in incarceration, environmental remediation, foster care for children and hospital costs from burns suffered when labs explode.
This week, nine officers were injured in Franklin County when they responded to an Estill Springs campground on a domestic violence-related call. When officers arrived, a man ignited the front door of the trailer. He had a meth lab inside.
That’s why some authorities say ice cases are easier to work than cases involving locally produced meth.
Because ice is generally produced in Mexico and not here, “we’re not concerned with cleanup and all the other things that go along with the manufacture of [meth],” said Bradley County Sheriff’s Chief Deputy Wayne Bird.
In Dalton, where Campos has a listed address, ice is the norm.
“The vast majority of meth in this region comes in from Mexico. Basically if it’s in any kind of large quantity, that’s where it started,” said Bruce Frazier, public information officer for the Dalton Police Department. “Sometimes the meth comes in liquid form and may be finished here in the States, but typically it’s made in Mexico and comes here.”
Ice isn’t prevalent in rural areas where local meth production is high because there’s no network of dealers to distribute the drug, according to the state comptroller’s report.
But the DEA expects a continuing rise in Mexican meth throughout the country.
The drug has already become more common in the Chattanooga area, according to investigators. Several pounds of ice have been seized in the Knoxville area over the last few months, Farmer said. And the Bradley County sheriff’s narcotics unit has turned its attention to ice.
The DEA assessment indicated a shifting meth landscape ahead, with domestic manufacturing scaling back as the prevalence of ice increases.
“Methamphetamine will remain highly pure as the gap between potency and purity continues to narrow; prices will remain low,” the DEA report said. “With the inflow of high-quality Mexico-produced methamphetamine, large-scale domestic production will continue to diminish; however, it will not disappear.”