Covert Trip to Massive Mexican Meth Lab in Sinaloa Shocks US Lawmen

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A dozen of Alabama’s highest-ranking law enforcement officials last week traveled deep into the bowels of the Mexican jungle – the belly of the beast as they describe it – to get a firsthand look at what they face in the war on drugs.

What they came away with was shock and awe at the volume of illegal narcotics – especially methamphetamine – being produced there, and a re-energized will to do all they can on the home front to knock back not only the demand, but the supply coming into the state’s cities and counties by the tons.

A dozen of Alabama’s highest-ranking law enforcement officials last week traveled deep into the bowels of the Mexican jungle – the belly of the beast as they describe it – to get a firsthand look at what they face in the war on drugs.
What they came away with was shock and awe at the volume of illegal narcotics – especially methamphetamine – being produced there, and a re-energized will to do all they can on the home front to knock back not only the demand, but the supply coming into the state’s cities and counties by the tons.
“We have all seen and witnessed a lot of things over the year. You get tired of seeing dead bodies, and the effects of overdoses,’’ said Clay Morris, Assistant Special Agent in Charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration in Birmingham. “I’ve seen and done a lot of big things around the world and to see that…it leaves you with an impression and it renews your fight. It’s staggering.”
On Sept. 11, the delegation of 12 traveled to Mexico City. Those who made the trip were: Morris, Northern District of Alabama U.S. Attorney Jay Town, Middle District of Alabama U.S. Attorney Louis Franklin, Southern District of Alabama U.S. Attorney Richard Moore, Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall, DEA Supervisor Sean Stephen, ALEA Secretary Hal Taylor, Madison County Sheriff Kevin Turner, Alabama District Attorney’s Association Barry Matson, Hoover Police Chief Nick Derzis, Madison County District Attorney Robert Broussard and Bryan Taylor, general counsel for the governor’s office.
“We talk about opioid crisis today and it is a crisis. It’s an epidemic, but we can’t forget methamphetamine,’’ Morris said. “Opioids is our acute problem. Methamphetamines are a systemic problem, the No. 1 problem in the state of Alabama.”
Under tight security provided by heavily-armed U.S. and Mexican law enforcement, the delegation traveled 5,500 miles in just under 72 hours to “see, hear and smell” the sophistication of the illegal narcotics trade there. 
The overall message, they said, was clear: drug trafficking and production in Mexico is dominating the drug trade in the U.S. Heroin, methamphetamine, fentanyl and evening cocaine originating in Colombia, all are being moved into the U.S. from Mexico.
Mexico’s Sinaloa drug cartel leaving deadly mark on Alabama:
“The Sinaloa cartel has been around forever. It is probably the most pervasive and extensive-reaching cartel in the U.S.,” said Bret Hamilton, assistant special agent in charge for Alabama’s Drug Enforcement Administration.
The first day was spent in briefings by U.S. and Mexican officials, helping the delegation to better understand the nature, the scope, the breadth of the drugs crossing the border into the U.S. On Day 2, they flew to the Mexican state of Sinaloa, outside the state’s capital of Culiacan and then loaded into a U.S. Marine Corps Black Hawk helicopter to fly about 30 minutes to see a clandestine meth lab that had been seized by DEA 15 days before their arrival. 
Sinaloa is a stronghold for the Sinaloa cartel. About 90% of the drugs that come into the U.S. and Alabama are supplied by and from the Sinaloa cartel, which has long had a presence in Alabama.
“It was dangerous. We had to use encrypted applications on our phones to even communicate because we knew the cartels knew we were in town. Folks knew we were in town and they knew why we were there and they didn’t like it,’’ Town said. “What we saw was exactly what we thought we were going to see, and more.”
What they saw was a lab that up until its seizure had produced three tons a week of crystal meth – 90 to 100 % pure. That’s 12 tons or 24,000 pounds a month that was capable of pulling in $1.44 billion a year. And they had passed six others just like it that had already been dismantled.
“I never thought I would be standing in a lab that produced three tons a month,’’ Marshall said. “It was like a movie set.”
The lab they visited had been seized 15 days before the Alabama delegation arrived. More than 70 law enforcement officers had spent two weeks protecting the site until the Alabama lawmen could get there and see it firsthand. “Just so we could understand the scope and the problem,’’ Morris said. “We found we do have friends in Mexico in law enforcement, quite literally friends who put their lives on the line for us and for our citizens here in Alabama.”
One of the men protecting the site had been shot eight times with a rifle during the shutdown of the lab. His vest shielded most of the rounds, but he had been hit in the leg and the hand. He still was wearing a brace on his leg from the injuries sustained in that shooting. “The sacrifices these men make to protect our country and our state are unheard of, and they are unparalleled,’’ Morris said.
“We have a problem with addiction in America and there’s many drug cartels that want to feed and fuel that problem and they care about nothing except the U.S. dollar coming back,’’ he said. “We see the destruction in our cities and our counties and our state. This trip was eye opening.”
The biggest fear in Mexico, the lawmen said, is not methamphetamine but fentanyl and fentanyl labs are now growing. China is a large supplier of the precursor chemicals for both meth and fentanyl, and the Mexican chemists are adept at changing the structures and formulas and the synthesis used.
Town said the trip signifies the lengths to which law enforcement in this state are willing to go to understand not just the illegal narcotics issues here in Alabama, but the trafficking efforts undergone in other countries. 
“The cartels are run more like a conglomerate, a Fortune 100 company, than they are just some dealers out of the garage,’’ he said. “They understand market share and how to increase demand by limiting the supply and how to diversify their portfolios.”
Derzis said so far this year in Hoover, they’ve lost seven people to drug overdoses, and saved 20 others. They have averaged about 12 deaths a year in recent years.
“What this trip did for me was to see the poison being produced in this country that’s coming here and killing people in the community that I serve,’’ he said. “I take that personal.”
Matson said that in his 30-year career, he’s never seen anything like it. “I’ve been on meth lab busts that encompassed an entire house or a large area but nothing on the acreage and the tonnage and the vastness of what we experienced down there,’’ he said. 
“If I told you there was a multi-national organization , China, Mexico and other countries that were sending poison into this country and slowly poisoning members of your family and people all across Alabama were dying a slow terrible death and they were also killing people immediately with that same poison, you would assume it was a terrorist organization and we needed to mobilize immediately. 
That’s exactly what’s happening in this country and happening right now. They don’t care, they’re making tons of money and they’re killing people.”
Sheriff Turner, who worked in narcotics for 20 years, said his county sees a drug overdose about every four days. Traveling below the border and seeing what they saw, he said, re-energized him. He said he came back and told his deputies “Let’s get to work. We can chop the heads off the guys who are selling the dope in our streets,’’ he said.
Earlier this month, Madison County deputies completed a six-month investigation into “ice” trafficking in north Alabama and seized roughly 24 pounds of the crystal meth. Those drugs, authorities said, came directly from Sinaloa.
Working with their federal law enforcement partners, Turner said, is important now more than ever before. “I’ll tell ya, I’ve been doing this a long time. I’ve seen a lot. I have taken down a lot of cocaine. I have seen a lot of methamphetamine, but when I went in that jungle and saw that, and on top of that to see the intimidation level they have in a city of a million people, it was incredible,’’ Turner said. “You understand when you stop someone, and they don’t want to talk. You understand why they don’t want to flip and tell on someone.”
“It takes a lot to shock us and it certainly did,’’ Town said. “There are an estimated 35,000 murders in Mexico a year. Mexico is roughly half the size of the U.S. but that is twice the number of murders we’ll have in this country this year. Drugs fuel violence.”

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