Secret labs operate on an industrial scale, buoyed by smugglers who set up drug houses in cities.
DALLAS — Mexican drug gangs are flooding Texas with more and more cheap, pure methamphetamine, according to law officers, drug criminals and statistical data assembled by The Dallas Morning News.
Clandestine Mexican laboratories operating on an industrial scale produce meth in liquid form. Traffickers smuggle it across the border, convert it into crystalline form and set up drug houses in small and large cities. The distributors sometimes pose as normal families and expose their children to dangerous chemicals used to convert the meth from liquid to crystal.
The meth trail often ends in a spasm of human misery.
Addicts go to prison or die from medical complications. Social service agencies take their children away. Some addicts bottom out and seek a return to normalcy at places such as Wellspring House, an eight-bed residential recovery center nestled in a quiet Irving neighborhood.
That dozens of Mexican syndicates control the retail meth market throughout Texas comes as no surprise to Brian Lane and other addicts who help each other maintain sobriety at Wellspring House.
“My dealer was a Hispanic female with a connection to people from Mexico,” said Lane, who recently celebrated two years of meth-free living. “We were getting really good stuff.”
Federal drug-enforcement analysts estimate that more than 90 percent of the meth in Texas comes from Mexico.
“Jeff,” an articulate and likable 19-year-old addict, bounced his leg nervously as he told his story. He had been dealing meth and injecting it for three years by the time he arrived at Wellspring House.
“We got it from the Mexicans, diluted it with a cutting agent to stretch 1 ounce into 2 ounces, and then sold it to white guys around East Texas,” said Jeff, who would only talk if his real name wasn’t used in this report.
“The drug house looked like a run-down shack. Inside, there were pounds of dope and stacks of money. You felt lucky to go in there and even luckier to make it out.”
The downward spiral
Lane’s love affair with meth, a powerful stimulant, almost ended a decade-long relationship with his life partner, Jonathan Boyd. By the time Lane’s addiction reached its worst point in 2012, he wanted to die. Sometimes, Boyd wanted him to die, too.
A cousin had introduced Lane to meth in 2008.
“I suddenly developed so much energy,” he said.
Boyd had smoked pot one time and drank an occasional cocktail or glass of wine. But he was naive about the dark world of drug addiction and manipulative addicts.
“My credit cards went on vacation,” he recalled. “They would disappear at night and return in the morning.”
Night after night, after Boyd fell asleep, Lane would rifle through his wallet, sneak out of the house and spend the night gambling in seedy, windowless gaming parlors stuffed with electronic slot machines.
“The places all had security cameras and doorbells you rang to get inside,” he said. “They checked you for weapons, and that was about it.”
Bags of dope exchanged hands. People smoked it in bathroom stalls. Lane, glassy-eyed and wired, sat on a stool for hours, feeding $5 bills into a slot, repeatedly punching the “Play” button and watching the machine’s icons spin.
Lane’s dealer nicknamed him “White Boy” and “Casper.” As his addiction deepened, he grew more erratic.
Boyd often came home from work to find his partner maniacally disassembling garage-door openers, entertainment-center remotes and other electronic devices, pieces scattered everywhere. Sometimes, the meth so debilitated him, he could barely feed himself.
“I was high all the time,” said Lane, who says he stole thousands of dollars from Boyd during his three years of meth abuse. He also stole Boyd’s tools and hocked them at pawn shops.
One night, Lane and his dealer made a mistake. She took him to a drug warehouse where gangsters converted the liquid meth into “ice” and sold it to distributors. The house — actually a small apartment building — sat on a cul-de-sac behind a shopping center just off Interstate 20 in Arlington.
Armed guards weren’t happy that the dealer brought Lane to the drug house. They started yelling and tried to block Lane’s car from leaving the property. The dealer jumped out of the car to explain, and Lane had to drive over a curb to escape into the night.
“It was terrifying,” he recalled. “The only reason they didn’t kill her is she moved so much dope for them.”
A haven for treatment
Boyd finally got fed up with his partner and threatened to end their relationship unless Lane went to rehab. They chose Caron Texas, a treatment center in Princeton, a small town in Collin County.
“When I dropped him off at the treatment center, I really was planning on never picking him up,” Boyd said.
John Dakin, the clinical director at Caron, convinced Boyd that he, too, needed treatment because of emotional trauma caused by his partner’s addiction. His attitude evolved during counseling and he stuck with Lane despite the repeated betrayals.
“The cost and toll of meth on our society is well-documented,” Dakin said. “It’s probably not going to stop.”
After rehab at Caron, Lane enrolled in a sober living program at a residential treatment center. And the idea for Wellspring House came to him and Boyd. They bought the two-story home in Irving, got trained for the program and opened in 2013.
Currently, six of eight Wellspring House residents are battling meth addiction. They stay as long as they want, but they must be employed, or enrolled in college or a trade school, or engaged as full-time community volunteers.
Revival after a lull
Congress passed the Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act of 2005 because domestic meth cookers had gotten out of control. They could walk into any grocery store and buy cartons of cold pills containing pseudoephedrine, mix them with other chemicals and process the noxious brew into methamphetamine.
The new federal law put tight controls on pseudoephedrine and other so-called precursor chemicals used to cook meth.
And the law worked.
“We saw meth production go down starting in 2006,” recalled Jane Maxwell, a senior research scientist at the University of Texas at Austin who has tracked the illegal drug market since the 1970s. “But then it started back up in 2008.”
Mexican drug cartels noticed the lull in U.S. meth production. They saw an opening and began establishing networks in Texas cities, where they also sold marijuana, black tar heroin and cocaine.
But meth became their special product, and they committed resources to it in a big way. The other three crop-based drugs were vulnerable to government eradication programs and weather conditions that affected harvests.
Cocaine required the Mexicans to share profits with Central and South American drug gangs that control the coca fields and processing labs. A lot of the American heroin market is controlled by trafficking groups in Asia and Europe.
“What Mexicans can control is the methamphetamine market,” said Ben West, a drug market analyst for Stratfor, an Austin-based “global intelligence” company that analyzes world events for its clients.
No one knows for sure, but some analysts estimate that as many as 150 Mexican drug gangs, many of which have splintered off from major cartels, have established operations in Texas. The situation resembles America during Prohibition, when criminal gangs sprang up to fight each other for control of the illegal whiskey industry.
The evidence suggests that drug gangs based south of the border are slowly extending their distribution networks by establishing relationships with Texas criminals.
Take the case of Jerry Don Castleberry, 72, a former member of the Bandidos motorcycle gang. Every so often, according to federal court records, he made the 200-mile round trip from his eastern Texas home in Longview to pick up a few ounces of meth from his Mexican distributor in Dallas.
Castleberry sometimes traded firearms for meth. But he got arrested and is now serving a long prison sentence.