GULFPORT -- An underworld that traffics meth has found its way to South Mississippi, with Mexican drug cartels sending small groups to handle the delivery of meth in its most potent form.
The addictive stimulant is known as Mexican meth, crystal meth or ice because of its appearance.
Hundreds of kilos of ice have been found here in the past couple of years and most of it is linked to Mexican drug cartels and their super labs, said Daniel Comeaux, agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration's Gulfport office.
"Drug cartels are trying to infiltrate different states and are setting up cell heads as distributors," Comeaux said. "That's what we are seeing here."
The DEA has arrested about 20 cartel members in ice investigations in South Mississippi, he said.
Mexico is the main source of meth consumed in the United States, according to the Justice Department's 2011 National Drug Threat Assessment.
Ice is made in super labs that bear no resemblance to sanitized manufacturing labs.
The influx in South Mississippi is in line with a DEA assessment that shows a shifting landscape nationwide and the possible effects of a 2010 Mississippi law that outlawed popular decongestants containing pseudophedrine, a key ingredient used to make meth.
For years, mom-and-pop meth labs or bathtub labs flourished in South Mississippi, occasionally making headlines when the chemicals exploded and started a fire or injured someone.
Shake-and-bake labs then popped up, allowing meth makers to easily mix the ingredients in a plastic soda bottle, shake it and let it "cook" wherever they wanted to make it.
While pseudoephedrine products were available over the counter, meth makers used "smurfs," different people to buy small quantities to avoid suspicion. After Mississippi banned over-the-counter sales of those products, people involved in making meth just drove across the state line to get that ingredient.
Since the law passed, reports of home meth labs, dump sites and related chemical and equipment finds have decreased dramatically. In 2010, 912 were reported to the El Paso Intelligence Center. There were 321 in 2011 and six in 2012.
A home meth lab can make
a couple of ounces of meth, but a super lab can churn out 10 pounds of ice every 24 hours, according to a Government Accountability Office report to Congress.
Drug cartels know their super labs can meet the high demand for ice better than small-time meth cooks can.
Dollars and cents
Drug-trafficking groups aren't in the business of drugs, Comeaux said. They're in the business of making money.
"It's all about dollars and cents," he said.
Ice is said to be about twice as potent as homemade meth. Users say it takes a smaller amount of ice to get the "rush" the stimulant provides.
Users also are attracted to ice because of its appearance, Comeaux said.
"The super labs make it look crystal clear," he said. "You can see straight through it like the rock candy we used to get when we were kids. Meth users look at it and say how clean it looks. The meth they get from mom-and-pop labs is a dark ivory-beige color."
Shake-and-bake labs are on the rise in Pearl River County, Comeaux said, but ice remains the region's key meth scourge.
Area law enforcement agencies also are seeing more ice and less homemade meth these days, agreed Troy Peterson, captain of the Coastal Narcotics Enforcement Team and the narcotics division of the Harrison County Sheriff's Office.
Ice sells for $150 to $200 a gram on the street, Peterson said. Just one ounce of it provides about 30 "hits" or doses.
Drug traffickers typically charge local suppliers hundreds of dollars or more for a pound.
Ice is generally smoked or injected but also can be swallowed or inhaled. Its effects can last for six hours, followed by difficulty in sleeping for several days. Health experts say ice and other forms of meth can cause bizarre, dangerous behavior and debilitating physical and mental health problems.
The drug also rots teeth and makes addicts look years older.
Investigating drug runners and traffickers has become increasingly dangerous because of suspects' affiliations with drug cartels and the possibility they are armed, Comeaux said.
That's why drug agents perform surveillance and gather as much intelligence as possible before they orchestrate a take-down.
Local agents have been shot at when spotted at drug buys and have been threatened in messages passed on through social media and word on the street, but none has been wounded in recent years.
The danger isn't something DEA agents take lightly, Comeaux said, especially when it comes time to plan a take-down that could put others in danger.
Take-downs often occur in restaurant or hotel parking lots, where agents find ice stashed in duffel bags, suitcases or hidden compartments built into or underneath vehicles. With a quick, pre-arranged signal after a drug transfer takes place, undercover agents rush in to make arrests.
In one recent case, ice was found inside fire extinguishers.
Other recent investigations also have led to the discovery of ice mailed to a Gulfport post office, shipped to a Gulfport condo and stored in a Waveland warehouse. In another case, a man used commercial vehicles to bring ice to Hancock and Pearl River counties.
Several drug runners prosecuted in the past year told drug agents they were paid $3,000 to $5,000 to deliver shipments of ice to South Mississippi. Most at first claimed they didn't know what they were delivering or knew it was drugs but they didn't know what type, and later accepted a plea agreement.
The arrest of a cartel associate in August 2012 is just one example of a DEA bust of a drug racketeering enterprise coordinated by a cartel member, Comeaux said. The arrest led to the seizure of 101.4 pounds of meth and put four people behind bars.
The DEA had received a tip that a woman from San Jose was in Gulfport and would be going to Mobile to meet with a meth transporter. Undercover agents followed Maria Guadalupe Mendoza, 37, to Mobile and witnessed the transfer of drugs in a fast-food parking lot next to a hotel. As the suspects drove away undercover agents split up, followed them and took them into custody.
Mendoza was a high-ranking member of Jalisco New Generation cartel, Comeaux said.
Jefferson Daniel Silver, 27, of Rialto, Calif., later admitted he had put the meth in a duffel bag and taken a cross-country trip with his mother, an over-the-road truck driver. His mother apparently didn't know they were hauling meth.
Mendoza, sentenced in July, is serving a prison term of 22 years. Silver was sentenced to 11 years and five months. Two other California residents also were convicted.