LOUISVILLE, Ky. – The COVID-19 pandemic is making meth more expensive in much of the U.S.
Travel restrictions at U.S.-Mexico border crossings and abroad have made it harder for cartels to move drugs and drug profits without detection, according to agents with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
"There’s been stockpiling of drugs and money on both sides of the Southwest border, and money laundering activity has decreased,” said J. Todd Scott, special agent in charge of the DEA's Louisville Field Division.
“People, in general, aren’t moving; stuff isn’t moving," he said. "Cartels function best when they can kind of move undercover, move with the legitimate commerce.”
Travel restrictions to and from China have also slowed the importation of precursor chemicals, which cartels use to make meth and fentanyl. Cartels, in turn, have slowed the amount of meth sent to America.
To lessen the financial blow, cartels have inflated the price of drugs, especially meth, according to drug agents across the country.
“About half of our field divisions are reporting price increases at the retail level of meth and increases for fentanyl" across the country, said Scott, who directs agents and intelligence analysts in Tennessee, Kentucky and West Virginia.
“There’s less of it out there, they’re gonna charge more."
'Every arm of cartels are having to adjust'
In Los Angeles, a major hub for Mexican cartels, meth prices have doubled. At the end of last year, a trafficker could buy a pound at wholesale from a cartel associate for $900. But then prices began to rise, climbing to $1,800 to $2,000 per pound, said Bill Bodner, special agent in charge of the DEA's Los Angeles Field Division.
The street-level price of fentanyl and crystal methamphetamine, called "ice," have increased in Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee, said Vic Brown, executive director of Appalachia High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area task forces. State lockdowns and the recommended reduction of travel have slowed drug trafficking along interstate corridors as well, he said.
“With methamphetamine, we’re seeing prices have gone up across the state of New Mexico,” said Will Glaspy, head of High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area task forces in the Southwest Border New Mexico Region.
In the DEA New England Field Division —which also includes Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, Maine, Rhode Island and New Hampshire — investigators noticed slight price increases for fentanyl and cocaine at the end of May, but no increase for meth in their region, said division spokesman Timothy Desmond. The virus hasn't hampered drug sales, he said.
The coronavirus also has impacted Mexican cartels' global business.
The cartels have struggled to get drugs in and money out of Australia, said Kevin Merkel, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's Australia attaché. This is now the most sought-after illicit drug market with users willing to pay a much higher price for top-quality Mexican meth than American buyers.
"As businesses are having to adjust, every arm of cartels are having to adjust," Merkel said.
Meth prices started to climb in Australia in May and have doubled in some areas, the drug agent said. A kilo of meth used to cost between $90,000 to $130,000 but is now garnering up to $200,000, he said. Cocaine, harder to get during the pandemic, followed a similar spike. With dealers paying more, they're passing that additional cost to users.
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In East and Southeast Asia, the supply of meth and other synthetic opioids has swelled, causing prices to fall, according to a May report of the United Nations Office on Drug and Crime.
"While the world has shifted its attention to the COVID-19 pandemic, all indications are that production and trafficking of synthetic drugs and chemicals continue at record levels in the region," Jeremy Douglas, UNODC Representative for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, said mid-May.
As people who are addicted scramble to pay more for their fix, agents predict an increase in car, garage and home burglaries as well as thefts.
"I would be very surprised if over the next three to four months, we didn’t see property crimes go up," said Bodner, head of LA drug agents. "When prices go up, addicts have to pay, and they have to get the money from somewhere."
The money paid for drugs is stockpiling in the U.S. and Australia, as cartels are leery of getting caught during a time of reduced travel.
During a 10-week period beginning in March, drug agents in the Los Angeles area seized $10 million in drug money, Bodner said. That's more than double drug profit seizures during the same time period last year. He explained that traffickers who used to limit money stored in stash houses to $100,000 to $200,000 are now keeping $1 million or more.
After law enforcement stumbled onto several large stockpiles of drug proceeds, cartels made quick changes.
“They’re having to resort to the old-fashioned way of putting money back in the trunk of a car and driving it south," Bodner said.
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Virus also impacts drug agents
As cartel members and associates have made adjustments during the pandemic, so have investigators.
“Routine hand-to-hand drug deals or buys you might have done a few weeks ago are a little tougher to pull off now," Scott, the DEA agent in Louisville, said. "But the bigger investigations, the wire intercepts, the long-term complex conspiracy cases are still going on.
“We’ve got enough gear to go out and do the arrests we need to do.”
Scott moved from Texas to Kentucky in May during the pandemic to lead the DEA's Louisville Field Division. He had to use video conferencing to meet his new agents, who he said continue to "vigorously" pursue cases.
"It hasn’t been easy, and we’ve had to get a bit creative in how we safely approach our operations, but we haven’t let the pandemic stop our efforts to support DEA’s mission and keep our communities safe," he said.
Merkel, over DEA operations in the Far East, oversees one of the divisions most impacted by the virus. Several of his agents and their families were evacuated from China, Indonesia and parts of Manila. Those agents, temporarily relocated to Washington, D.C., have remained in contact with their counterparts in their host countries to coordinate investigations as well as search warrants and arrests.
"They’re on the other side of the world still getting their job done,” Merkle said. "It's impressive."
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Across the U.S., federal agents are wearing face masks, gloves and eye protection to search suspects' homes and make arrests.
In New York, police and DEA agents teamed to shut down a drug ring in the Bronx in May with more than a million dollars in heroin and fentanyl.
"Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, we arrested six drug traffickers who aptly branded their product ‘coronavirus’," DEA Special Agent in Charge Ray Donovan, over the New York Division, said in a tweet.
However, some police departments remain concerned about safety and want to hold off on interviews and searches and instead focus on surveillance.
“Some of those departments don’t want their guys going out,” said Glaspy, who oversees the task forces at the border that team federal agents with local and state police.
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In Mexico, cartels capitalize on pandemic
In Mexico, cartels are finding ways to capitalize on the virus. That includes fighting over drug sales and coveted routes as police and military are having to turn their focus from traffickers to civil unrest as a result of the coronavirus, which has killed more than 13,000 people in Mexico.
"That obviously distracts law enforcement from controlling many highways and many drug distribution points, and that could promote the trafficking or domestic sale of drugs,” said Eduardo Guerrero Gutiérrez, a public safety consultant and political analyst based in Mexico City.
The cartel turf wars have contributed to a spike in homicides, which topped 11,535 by the end of April, according to the report from country's security ministry. At that pace, the country is expected to suffer one of its deadliest years since record keeping began in 1997.
All the while, during the pandemic, cartels are delivering food and essential household items to impoverished residents in Mexico to garner local support and mark their turf.
Cartel members are boasting about their supposed good deeds on social media, posting videos and photos of boxes of supplies branded with their cartel name, such as CJNG, for the Cártel Jalisco Nueva Generción or its leader "El Mencho."
But, the cartels are stealing the food they hand out from markets in Mexico in an attempt to bolster their image and profit off the pandemic, Merkel said.
The food handouts are a common propaganda campaign for cartels, said Javier Oliva, political and social sciences professor and researcher at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.
"The truth is that they just hand out 30 or 40 boxes," not enough to lessen the poverty, Oliva said.
"They only want to show the message, 'Here we are,'" especially to rival cartels.
In contrast, the cartel also frequently uses social media to spread fear by posting photos and videos of kidnappings, torture and killings of rivals, which was detailed in a November Courier Journal special report on the cartel and El Mencho.
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Will virus have lasting impact on drug war?
Drug agents expect cartels to resume traditional money laundering and drug smuggling methods once flights and traffic at the border increase. They don't know if cartels have found new ways to get drugs from Mexico into the U.S. amid travel restrictions that they could continue to use.
“It’s far too soon to know exactly how COVID-19 is affecting the cartels," Scott said during an interview in Louisville. "We just don’t have enough data."
In Los Angeles, Bodner agreed, but added: “The drug business is a pretty efficient market.
"They're always looking for new opportunities."
Merkel said agents will investigate how cartels adjusted during the pandemic to find new ways to attack them.
“We’ve seen what can happen when cartels are disrupted on a global scale," he said. "We’re going to attempt to exploit that as much as we can.”
Reach reporter Beth Warren: email@example.com or on Twitter @BethWarrenCJ.
People struggling with drug addiction can find help through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's national hotline 1-800-662-HELP (4357).
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