Have Mexican Drug Cartels Taken Over the Meth Market in Oregon?

On Friday, sheriffs in Salem, Ore., raided a a house located just three doors down from an elementary school. They discovered more than five pounds of meth in the home, inhabited by Jose Alfredo Mendoza-Ruiz and Mariela Davila-Saucedo. And on March 17, Oregon State Police stopped an Acura on I-5 and found 17 pounds of meth when they searched the car, driven by Francisco Hernandez-Figueroa (pictured), a 27-year-old living in Seattle. Since Oregon passed a law requiring a doctor's prescription for pseudoephedrine--the cold medicine that is a key crank-cooking ingredient--the number of meth labs and meth-related arrests statewide has plummeted. But are these two recent busts an indication that Mexican drug cartels are stepping in and filling the state's meth-supply void?

After Friday's meth seizure at the house near the school, the story on The Oregonian's website was littered with anti-immigrant comments, speculating that "The Mexican Mafia now owns the meth and marijuana rights to Oregon . . . The problem hasn't gone away. It's under new management."

According to various law-enforcement officials and supporters of Oregon's pseudoephedrine restrictions, that statement is mostly accurate, save for one massive caveat: Drug cartels have always dominated the state's drug trade.

"The Mexican DTOs [drug-trafficking organizations] were already here," says Rob Bovett, the District Attorney for Lincoln County and the legal counsel for Oregon's Narcotics Enforcement Agency. "They were already producing and distributing the mass majority of meth, and they have been since forever. The reality is, before we got rid of local meth makers, they were still producing and selling 80 percent of the meth in Oregon."

As Bovett points out, Oregon has been remarkably successful at eradicating mom-and-pop meth labs--the trailer-park operations that tend to blow up, leaving behind a $150,000 mess for local authorities to clean up--and, often, several kids who end up in the custody of Child Protective Services.

Prior to 2005, when the law requiring a doctor's approval to obtain pseudoephedrine-containing cold medicines like Sudafed and Claritin-D was enacted, Oregon authorities routinely busted between 300 and 600 meth labs annually. Since then, the number of meth labs discovered and busted in each of the last four years has fallen to less than 25 total statewide. Meth arrests, meth substance-abuse treatment admissions, and meth-related emergency-room visits have also declined dramatically, as has crime statewide.

Mississippi lawmakers followed Oregon's lead in making pseudoephedrine prescription-only, and they have seen similar positive effects. Now 16 other meth-plagued states are considering similar legislation. Last year, Washington took the less-drastic measure of implementing an electronic monitoring system. In theory, the digital database keeps track of who's buying cold medicine for illicit use. But in practice the system does little to stop "smurfing" by meth cooks who go from store to store using stolen or assumed identities to gather their ingredients.

In contrast to Oregon, Washington's meth woes are only worsening. In January, according to the Washington State Methamphetamine Initiative, 659 people were arrested on meth-related charges. Monthly meth arrests statewide peaked at 956 in March 2007, declined briefly, and have since held steady, with between 500 and 700 people arrested each month. Here's the monthly meth-arrest data in graph form:

Meth Graf.jpg
Graph and data via Washington State Methamphetamine Initiative

According Mike Stafford, the public-safety policy coordinator for the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission, Oregon once tallied similar meth-arrest numbers--about 650 people per month. But since the pseudoephedrine restrictions, the state has averaged about 90 arrests per month.

Stafford lays the blame for Oregon's lingering meth problems on California, where he says cartels are using smurfing tactics to gather pseudoephedrine and fuel "superlabs" that crank out several pounds of crank per day. (The Washington Attorney General's office says California is the state's "main source" for meth.) Mexico, meanwhile, has completely banned psuedoephedrine, and as a result, Stafford says, the quality and price of cartel meth has declined in recent years.

"If they're cooking elsewhere, they're just going to transport it up the I-5 corridor," Stafford says. "And obviously they don't just do meth, they're going to operate around a whole variety of stuff."

The upshot of the pseudoephedrine restrictions, Bovett says, is that state and local law-enforcement agencies can now devote their resources to other types of investigations. "Our officers are not going from lab to lab to lab, basically acting as a glorified haz-mat team," Bovett says. "They can now spend quality time going after the DTOs."

But whether Oregon's cops can now use their time and money to topple the drug cartels--the same ones that have been there supplying drugs "since forever"--is another question entirely.

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