Comments Off on I-10 ‘Pipeline’ keeps Methamphetamine coming to Mobile area

With almost 30 years in law enforcement, Mobile’s executive director of public safety sees something familiar about current trends in methamphetamine trafficking.

“Actually, it’s a transition back to the way it was,” said James Barber, who previously served as chief of the Mobile Police Department before taking his current post earlier this year.

In the ’70s and ’80s, he said, outlaw motorcycle gangs had a reputation for making methamphetamine and distributing it across the United States. But starting in the ’90s, the Internet facilitated the rapid spread of various methods of making the drug.

That led to an era of do-it-yourself labs. While these used a variety of hazardous chemical processes, they all tended to involve hazardous chemicals, explosion-prone processes and toxic byproducts. Rural sites often were used because chemical odors were a potential tipoff, but smaller “shake and bake” labs could be operated in moving car.

Barber, echoing comments by Mobile County Sheriff Sam Cochran (also a former chief of the Mobile Police Department), said the balance began to shift about 10 years ago when the state started to impose restrictions on the purchase of cold medicines containing ephedrine and pseudophedrine, used in popular manufacturing processes.

It got harder to make meth locally. But there was an alternative: “Ice,” a version coming in from Mexico. Its distinctive appearance – big slabs of crystal, or smaller shards – became synonymous with purity.

“Trafficking switched back over to pipeline trafficking,” Barber said.

In recent years, whenever a meth bust has been announced by the Mobile Police Department or the multi-agency Mobile County Street Enforcement Narcotics Team (MCSENT), it’s become common to see hints of a bigger picture. To quote a MCSENT release from January, “A search warrant was executed … as part of an ongoing large-scale investigation into the trafficking and distribution of crystal methamphetamine in the Mobile area.”

I-10 Pipeline

That “ongoing large-scale investigation” isn’t a single narrative with a clean beginning, middle and end, Barber said. Instead, it’s a sustained multi-agency effort to combat a longtime enemy whose tactics continuously evolve. There are some constants, thought, and one of them is the fact that Interstate 10 makes Lower Alabama a crossroads for traffickers.

“I-10 has always been a huge pipeline because it gives access to Houston, which was a big hub for cocaine,” Barber said. He said it’s often an inefficient system: Back in the day, cocaine might pass through the area in bulk, bound from Houston into Florida, then portions of it would be brought back into Alabama for local use.

With meth, some of the same holds true, he said. “The amount of drugs passing through the area far exceeds the amount stopping here,” Barber said.

The immediate concern of the Mobile PD is to stop the meth coming into Mobile. But the department is also a part of bigger efforts to interrupt its flow farther to the east, working with agencies such as the FBI and DEA as investigators try to trace drugs from street dealers back to their wellsprings. “Inter-agency cooperation is paramount,” said Barber.

A sentencing that took place in Mobile’s federal courthouse in late June is illustrative. The short version is that the U.S. Attorney’s office prosecuted Jenna Kathleen Fitzhugh-Thomas of Pensacola for a scheme to mail 37 pounds of meth to Fairhope. Aside from the odd contrast between scenic, upscale Fairhope and the violence and squalor implicit in 16.9 kilos of meth, the case produced a sentence of 12-1/2 years.

There’s more to it: A postal inspector in Mobile intercepted the package, with help from a Mobile PD K-9 officer named Aron. The DEA got involved, exploring a multi-state conspiracy that involved shipments coming out of southern California, coordinated by suppliers based in Washington State – where FBI agents executed a search warrant in Vancouver, Wash. In addition to the conviction of defendants in multiple states, the case involved the interception of a 7.8-pound meth shipment in New Orleans, as it was carried eastward by an Amtrak passenger.

“This case represented the quintessential example of the partnership between different federal law enforcement agencies as well as the cooperation between federal and local law enforcement agencies,” Steve Butler, acting U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Alabama, said at the time.

Even a big win doesn’t end the game, though.

Threats come and go. After an intense period of activity a couple of years ago with synthetic marijuana, “we’ve seen spice drop off almost completely.” Barber said police are keeping a wary eye out for upticks in heroin-related activity, though so far it hasn’t taken hold in southwest Alabama the way it has in other areas. Fentanyl is another concern, an “incredibly powerful drug, incredibly dangerous,” he said.

Prescription opiates are a more insidious problem, because overdoses might be classed as medical matters rather than criminal. “One of the big problems with opiates, we don’t really know how many people are dead,” Barber said.

Recently Mobile police, along with the administration of Mayor Sandy Stimpson, celebrated a long-term win over another problem drug, crack cocaine. Two years ago, police shut down what Barber called the city’s “last open-air drug market,” a home at 1076 State Street that had been a hot spot for decades. According to information released by the Mobile PD, officers once documented more than 650 drug transactions at the site in a single two-month span.

It was demolished. On July 22, city officials had a celebration in the Campground community. The occasion served as the groundbreaking for a new house, funded by the federal HOME program, that will provide new, affordable housing on the site.

That doesn’t mean crack has gone away, Barber said. And despite some big busts, neither has meth. The ongoing investigation continues.

Barber said that as long as the demand for a drug remains, “it usually doesn’t take long for a new supplier to step in.”


As meth arrests dropped in Mobile County, ice moved in

Prior to 2008, walls being blown out of apartments, mobile home explosions and flash fires from methamphetamine labs became too common of a crime scene in Mobile County.

It prompted Mobile County Sheriff Sam Cochran to act in the Alabama State Legislature and on the ground, to curb meth use and distribution.

“When we first started in 2008 it was widespread,” said Cochran. “Drug labs were being found. Fires were being caused from mini explosions. Many people would have it blowing up in their face.”

Cochran said to understand how to combat the explosion of homemade meth labs popping up around the county, first, his department had to understand how everyday people were obtaining powerful drugs in large quantities.

At the time, there were not any restrictions on the sale of pseudoephedrine and ephederine, key ingredients to make meth, at the hundreds of pharmacies and drug stores in the county. You could even walk into a convenience store and buy the drugs.

“At that time, Mobile County was the number one seller of all 67 counties in the state for pseudoephedrine,” said Cochran. “It was even larger than Jefferson County.”

When they launched their meth initiative in 2008, former federal Drug Enforcement Agency Agent, Joe Bettner, was hired to lead the MCSO’s Narcotics team.

At the inception of the program, sales of pseudoephedrine were averaging around 17,000 per month.  Compare that number to 2017 sales of pseudoephedrine, which are around 5,678 per month – a major drop.

“About a year ago (June 2016) we dropped down from number one to number three with Jefferson and Madison Counties,” said Cochran.

He credits that drop to House Bill 363, that went into effect on April 12, 2012.

 “As part of our initiative we tried to get a law passed in the legislature to require pseudoephedrine to be a prescription drug,” said Cochran. “We were quickly met with resistance by the drug manufacturers lobbying against us. We found out quickly they were more powerful than we were.”

He said states like Mississippi and Oregon had passed similar bills and saw sharp reductions in meth related arrests and accidents. He convinced state legislators to pass House Bill 363 that created new provisions on the sale of pseudoephedrine and ephedrine, but it did not go into effect immediately.

“Arrests went up real high in 2008 and has steadily declined with the law changes began taking effect over the years,” said Cochran.

The bill increased regulation of over-the-counter sales of pseudoephedrine and ephedrine, implemented an electronic drug offender tracking system and expanded the crime of unlawful possession of a controlled substance.

“They would have to sign for it and produce an ID,” said Cochran.

He said once the bill limited the over-the-counter sales to licensed pharmacies and capped the quantity to 2 boxes of pseudoephedrine and ephedrine per month for each customer, criminals became creative.

“It was called, ‘Smurfing,’ where people would pull up in a car and maybe four people get out and all four buy two boxes,” said Cochran. “We did a lot of operations where we would arrest people for doing that throughout the county. We would arrest 16 to 18 people in one evening at drug stores.”

That arrest trend continued from 2008 to 2012 when House Bill 363 went into effect and the electronic monitoring program kicked in.

“Every drug store had to subscribe to it at no cost to them,” said Cochran. “So when someone goes in to buy it, now they have to have a state driver’s license, U.S. ID or passport and it’s those specific ones.”

The electronic monitoring system let’s pharmacies know if they can sell or not sell the drugs to the customer. The system caps the sales at 2 boxes per month (7 grams) of pseudoephedrine and ephedrine.

“That started denying a bunch of sales,” said Cochran. “Also, if you were a convicted drug offender your name is put into the system by the state and you can’t even buy it. If you were guilty of possession for some other type of drug your put in the system for 7 years. If you’re convicted for dealing or trafficking your put in the system for 10 years.”

Bettner, who heads the MCSO’s Narcotics team, said the decline was a predictive result when they decided to launch the initiative.

“In making precursor materials so difficult to obtain we have taken the labs out of our neighborhood, cars and motel rooms effectively making our community safer,” said Bettner.

The number of meth lab explosions and the number of labs discovered also dropped significantly since 2008. The MCSO’s most recent data shows that 13 labs were discovered in 2015, 16 were found in 2016 and only 9 labs have been found so far in 2017.

Prior to that, Cochran said they were averaging at least 3 working labs per week.

“It’s not a huge lab or big operation. It was purely a numbers game we were chasing,” said Cochran. “It’s kind of like they use it themselves and make it themselves and sell some of it. They’re small time operators, but they’re selling it, exploding it, and causing harm to others.”

He said the biggest threat, at the height of meth consumption in Mobile County, was the backlogging of patient’s at local hospitals.

“The biggest threat in reality was the threat to the hospitals and the burn units being inundated with people with severe burns,” said Cochran. “Also, the injuries to the innocent children that would be caught up in the fires and explosions.”

Cochran said with all the strides they’ve made in containing methamphetamine in the county, a new form of the drug has risen.

“What we have seen though is more Ice coming in from Mexico,” said Cochran. “The super labs in Mexico make a purer form of methamphetamine and they refer to it as Ice. It has sort of took over that market.”

A July 2015, intelligence report released by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency showed the connection of Mexican Drug Cartels in each U.S. state. The report linked the Sinaloa Cartel, Cartel Jalisico Nueva Generacion-Los Cuinis and the Beltran-Leyva Organization with drug trafficking ties in Mobile and Baldwin Counties.

According to the report, all three of the organizations control drug trafficking across the Southwest U.S. border and are moving to expand their share, mostly in the heroin and methamphetamine markets.

“We started seeing more Ice in Mobile County in 2014, 2015 and going forward,” said Cochran.

He said recently they’ve stopped drug traffickers in Mobile County with 2 to 3 kilos of Ice.

“This gets back to your traditional narcotics investigations,” said Cochran. “We’ll catch people in possession and try to work our way up to see where they got it from.”

He said the Ice investigations require a multi-agency approach with neighboring states and the Federal Bureau of Investigations. The MCSO also has a joint operation with the Baldwin County Sheriff’s Office called the ‘Crime Interdiction Unit.’
They assist agencies like the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency with drug trafficking investigations on the Interstate and local highways.

“We’re taking down wanted suspects, drug traffickers, currency traffickers and things like that,” said Cochran.

He said ice traffickers typically leave Mexico with a shipment that runs between Texas and Atlanta, Georgia once it’s inside the U.S.

“The interstates between those cities runs straight through Mobile,” said Cochran. “We also know some of the traffickers will divert around the interstate and take some of the other highways.”

Once the Ice shipment gets to Atlanta, Cochran said it gets redistributed to other areas including Mobile County. He said it mirrors the pattern of cocaine distribution that would originate in Miami, Florida, in the 1980’s.

“Initially it doesn’t make sense, but then it does. Dealing in drugs is just like selling groceries,” said Cochran. “You have a shipper who ships to the warehouses and the warehouses redistribute. Someone in Mobile might be buying or selling drugs from Atlanta and a month before the drugs were driven right through Mobile.”

Now, the MCSO is transforming its’ meth initiative into something that can help curb the distribution and use of Ice.

The meth text hotline, ‘839863’ or phone number 251-574-3784, that was once used by residents to send information on meth labs, can be used for information related to Ice traffickers.

“Many people are sending us in tips for meth, other drugs or other types of crimes there and on our social media platforms,” said Cochran. “So I guess you can say we’ve transitioned those tipsters into people who can help us with Ice investigations.”



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