Drug Labs in Valley Hideouts Feed Nation's Habit
May 14, 2001
MADERA, Calif., May 12 — Along the country roads off Highway 99, it
is plain to see why the Central Valley calls itself the nation's fruit
basket. Rising from some of the richest soil in the world, disciplined
rows of fig and almond trees give way to orange and lemon groves, cherry
orchards and bushy lettuce and cabbage plants, as far as the eye can
But hidden away on this soil, in abandoned barns and falling-down
farmhouses, hundreds, if not thousands, of laboratories are churning out
illegal methamphetamine, the highly addictive stimulant that Barry R.
McCaffrey, the former federal drug czar, has called "the worst drug
that has ever hit America."
As a result, methamphetamine is likely to be one of the biggest
challenges for President Bush's newly nominated drug czar, John P.
Walters, and the man Mr. Bush selected to run the Drug Enforcement
Administration, Representative Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas.
In the last few years, the Central Valley, particularly its
heartland, has become so inundated with methamphetamine laboratories —
many of them run by Mexican crime families — that the Drug Enforcement
Administration has labeled it a "source nation" for the drug.
The valley's only competition, federal authorities say, is Southeast
Asia, which produces and distributes the drug in pill form, mainly to
Europe. Here the drug is produced as a powder, which users snort, inject
or even slip into their coffee.
"It's been growing tremendously in the last five or six
years," said Joe Keefe, chief of operations at the drug agency.
"In 1996, we looked at methamphetamine trafficking by the Mexican
nationals and had 60 investigations. In the last couple of months, we
had over 800." The organizations have also expanded their marketing
all over the country, he said, such that methamphetamine produced in
California can be bought on the street in Portland, Me.
Other states, particularly Washington, Missouri and Iowa, also have
significant problems with methamphetamine laboratories, but 97 percent
of the "superlabs" that can be traced to Mexican drug
operations are in California, law enforcement officials say. The state
produces 80 percent of the drug found in this country, the officials
say, 60 percent of it in the pastoral towns of the Central Valley
stretching from Bakersfield to Sacramento.
Government officials consider methamphetamine the fastest-growing
illegal drug in this country, in Canada and in parts of Europe, feeding
an epidemic of addiction that they say rivals that of heroin and cocaine
over the past few decades.
But the impact is felt acutely here as the clandestine laboratories
poison the Central Valley's soil with byproducts and tax the combined
resources of special squads from dozens of law enforcement agencies.
Officials have also expressed particular concerns about children who
live in or near the laboratories and are exposed to dangerous fumes.
In the last decade, officials say, methamphetamine production has
surged in the state as a whole and in the Central Valley in particular.
In 1999, 261 laboratories were seized in 9 of the valley's 17 counties,
triple the 73 seized seven years before.
But the cartels, officials say, see the raids simply as the price of
business. When a laboratory is raided or found accidentally —
sometimes when the cooks blow up the building they are in — the
operation simply finds another barn or house.
This makes the operations particularly hard to break, said William
Ruzzamenti, a special agent for the Drug Enforcement Administration and
director of the Central Valley High Intensity Drug-Trafficking Area
program. The Central Valley program, which began in January 2000,
operates four task forces from more than 50 federal, state and local law
enforcement agencies that comb the valley for the laboratories.
They are relentlessly busy. Central Valley's methamphetamine task
forces and other law enforcement agencies crack five laboratories a day
in California. The amount they seize is only about a tenth of the
methamphetamine produced, officials estimate.
The drug cartels out-finance the antidrug efforts many times over.
The Central Valley task forces, for instance, receive $2.5 million a
year in federal aid to fight the producers.
"We keep busting them," Mr. Ruzzamenti said. "But they
keep setting up shop."
Methamphetamine, widely known as meth, crank and crystal, was once
produced and sold solely by outlaw motorcycle gangs, drug officials say.
In the 1960's and 70's, the gangs cooked the product in remote outposts
in the California desert and distributed it themselves. Then, in the
early 90's, as crack waned, Mexican crime families, primarily from
Michoacán, who had been trafficking in cocaine from Colombia,
discovered that they could make more money by creating their own
product, which they would not have to smuggle to the United States.
In places like San Diego, San Bernardino, Riverside and Los Angeles
Counties, they began setting up the superlabs — those that produce at
least 10 pounds a day, unlike the smaller, amateur laboratories run by
But aggressive law enforcement efforts began putting a crimp in the
superlabs, and about four years ago, officials say, the cartels began
moving operations north to the San Joaquin Valley, the wide-open section
of the Central Valley.
Law enforcement officials say that shaking the superlab operations is
particularly hard in the Central Valley because its vast, unpopulated
stretches and ready access to interstate roads make it easy to hide and
transport methamphetamine. Also, the valley's chronic high-unemployment
rate makes recruiting workers, ignorant of the deadly risks of producing
the drug, as easy as selling lemonade on a hot day.
"One of the tragedies of this business is that the crime
families consider the work force a renewable resource," Mr.
Ruzzamenti said. "When the workers get too sick from all the
chemicals they've been ingesting to keep going, they just bring over or
Any unassuming building can be a methamphetamine laboratory producing
up to 100 pounds per 24-hour cooking cycle. Robert Pennal, commander of
the Fresno Anti-Meth Task Force — which covers three of the most
active counties, Madera, Fresno and Merced — has learned to look at
every building in the middle of a field with a suspicious eye.
"They love buildings deep in a field, where they can look out
and see who's coming," said Mr. Pennal, on a recent tour of Merced
County. Last year, the task force raided 56 laboratories, 36 in Merced
alone. And the majority, Mr. Pennal said, were superlabs run by Mexican
To demonstrate the ordinariness of a superlab, Mr. Pennal drove to
one his task force raided more than a year ago. The farmer who owns the
land was unaware of the site until it was raided and was still awaiting
word from the county health department on when he could tear the
building down. But when Mr. Pennal pulled up to the property, he
discovered new trash bags full of the ingredients used to produce
methamphetamine, from gloves to denatured alcohol to Coleman cooking
The abandoned farmhouse had once again been used to produce the drug,
perhaps even the day before.
Superlab operators will rent a farmhouse and work on the property for
as long as a year without the farmer who owns the property even
realizing it, Mr. Pennal said. The cartels either pay off a farm worker
to act as a lookout or rent the farm worker's house as a laboratory,
paying the worker to keep quiet.
Earlier this month, an almond and fig farmer in Madera County
stumbled onto a laboratory in an abandoned house on his 600-acre farm.
"I noticed the windows were boarded from the inside, so I just went
inside," said the farmer, who refused to give his name for fear of
retaliation from the cartels.
What he found was a laboratory in midcook, capable of producing 40
pounds of methamphetamine a day. The drug is immediately cut once, often
twice, for a yield of perhaps 80 to 120 pounds. On the street, its value
would be $1 million to $2 million, depending on where it was sold.
(Wholesale prices run from $4,500 to $8,000 a pound in California,
$15,000 to $20,000 a pound on the East Coast, Mr. Pennal said.) The drug
costs $1,300 to $1,800 a pound to produce, including labor and raw
ingredients, an unpalatable assortment that can include crushed diet
pills, nasal decongestants, even antifreeze.
Two people were arrested that day — a farm worker who lived next
door in worker barracks who was suspected of having been hired to keep
quiet and watch the laboratory, and a suspected laboratory employee
found on the premises.
But just to remove the materials and catalog them took dozens of
special agents, many of them outfitted with thousands of dollars worth
of protective equipment. The ground around the Madera farm laboratory
was white with the residue of methamphetamine byproducts.
"The farming situation being what it's been the last couple of
years," said the farmer, "we're most worried about the
hazardous materials and what it's going to do to the farm. If it costs a
lot to clean, we just might give up the farm."
Officials say the laboratories create up to 10 pounds of waste for
every pound of the drug. With an estimated output of well over 100,000
pounds a year, that means a million pounds of waste is being produced,
including chemicals like red phosphorous, hydrochloric acid and
hydriodic acid. One of the most dangerous byproducts is phosphine, which
scientists say is so toxic only a few molecules can be deadly.
When a laboratory is found, the state hires waste cleanup companies
to remove the materials inside (at a cost to taxpayers of approximately
$10 million a year). But the cost of cleaning contaminated soil and
groundwater is the property owner's burden. More and more, said John
Anderson, the sheriff of Madera County, where about a dozen superlabs
were found last year, owners are abandoning their properties.
"One farmer was hit with a $600,000 cleanup bill and he let the
farm go for back taxes," Mr. Anderson said. "Now the county
has to foot the cleanup costs."
There are other costs as well. Child protection agencies here,
flooded with cases of neglect and abuse, trace the majority of the cases
to parents who use methamphetamine, which causes paranoia and violent
outbursts in some users. In addition, the Central Valley task forces
recently began testing children they find in or near methamphetamine
laboratories, because fumes produced in the cooking of the drug can
destroy lung tissue and induce chemical pneumonia. Every single child,
said Mr. Ruzzamenti, the drug enforcement director, has tested positive
for methamphetamine or a toxic byproducts.
"Methamphetamine is the most significant drug threat in this
district," said John Vincent, the United States attorney for the
Eastern District, which covers the Central Valley. "About 75
percent of the drug cases that we bring annually are methamphetamine
The penalties for methamphetamine production are high. Possession of
500 grams, just over a pound, commands a minimum mandatory sentence of
10 years in prison, and the higher the amount, the higher the sentence.
A production line worker in a superlab — which employ five to six
workers and a foreman — is liable on conviction to be sentenced to 30
years to life in prison.
But Mr. Vincent noted that most raids resulted in arrests of
low-level workers — the renewable resources — and left the source
untouched. "It is difficult to work your way up the chain for two
reasons," he said. "Lab workers are kept ignorant and they