The clandestine production of methamphetamine, or "speed," is nothing new in California.
But what has changed is who is cooking up and selling the drug, a crystalline powder.What was once the nearly unchallenged province of motorcycle gangs like the Hell's Angels has been taken over by well-organized Mexican syndicates, state and federal officials say.
Mike Gilbert, special agent in charge of the Sacramento regional office of the state's Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement, said the change emerged over the past three years.
The first raids on big laboratories run by Mexican groups were in 1991 in the vast, largely unpopulated deserts of Southern California, he said.
"When we first started arresting Hispanic groups involved in the manufacture and major distribution of methamphetamine," Gilbert said last week, "we thought it was an aberration. But a pattern started to emerge, and now 80 to 90 percent of our arrests of manufacturers and major traffickers involve Mexican nationals, and 75 percent of those are undocumented Mexicans."
Ed Synicky, Gilbert's counterpart in the Riverside office in Southern California, agreed, saying, "Today it's the exception to see a meth lab that's run by anyone other than a Mexican group."
In a raid on a laboratory near the Sacramento Delta town of Isleton in late July, the authorities found 75 pounds of the drug. Everyone arrested was a Mexican national, the officials said.
Methamphetamine sells for $3,500 a pound from laboratories, said Gilbert, and is eventually sold by the lowest-level dealers on the street for $20 a quarter of a gram. The drug is injected, snorted or smoked.
But officials say they are concerned about more than the drug itself. Tom Constantine, the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration in Washington, said in a telephone interview that officials were also worried that a large group with a strong organization was taking over a drug market.