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West Coast Meth Lab Operations Reaching New Levels, DEA Says

By Rene Sanchez
THE WASHINGTON POST -- LOS ANGELES

They stormed in after midnight, kicking down doors of homes and businesses around this county’s desert fringe. More than 100 federal agents and local detectives took part in the raids, and by the time the sun came up they had nabbed yet another gang of suspected methamphetamine traffickers.

The raids last week culminated an 18-month investigation dubbed “Operation Silent Thunder” that led to the arrest of nearly 300 people on drug or weapons charges. Hundreds of firearms and explosives have been seized.

More than a dozen large makeshift laboratories for manufacturing methamphetamine have been closed and quantities of the drug worth more than $2 million -- usually sold on the street in small amounts of powder or rock-have been confiscated.

Law enforcement authorities acknowledge that the results are another sign of just how pervasive and sophisticated the illicit methamphetamine trade has become in many parts of the state. Once casually run, mostly by outlaw biker gangs, methamphetamine production is now a tightly managed big business, concentrated in California’s hills and deserts and its vast, rural Central Valley.

So much methamphetamine is produced in California that federal officials now consider the state a “source nation” for the highly addictive drug, which is also known as speed, ice or crystal. Meth labs are flourishing more than ever in other western states such as Arizona, Nevada and Washington.

According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, about 2,700 meth labs were found in California in 1999. The state with the second-highest total, Washington, had about 600. Arizona had nearly 400.

After the raids, authorities said they were confident that they had crushed the remnants of an elaborate criminal enterprise. But they said there would be many more to contend with.

“We think we’ve put a huge dent in this organization,” Lt. Ron Shreeves of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department said after the raids. “But is someone else going to fill its shoes? Absolutely. There’s too much money involved.”

Federal narcotics officials say national meth use has doubled in the past seven years. Much of the market, they say, is controlled by criminal groups based in Mexico that use California migrant workers to cook and transport the drug from shacks and trailers in the desert or barns in the fields of the state’s agricultural midsection.

As the operations have become more organized -- some meth labs operate every day, authorities say -- production has greatly increased.

Ron Gravitt, the clandestine laboratory coordinator for the California Department of Justice, calls the state’s methamphetamine problem “an epidemic.” Law enforcement agencies in California are shutting down more than 2,000 meth labs each year, he said. And in some parts of the state, the tally has doubled or tripled over the past decade.

“Right now, we’re just inundated with meth,” Gravitt said.

California will spend $30 million this year to crack down on the methamphetamine trade, but just finding meth labs, some of which produce 50 pounds of the drug a week, is often difficult because they are remote.

Jose Martinez, a spokesman for the DEA’s office in Los Angeles, said that sparsely populated areas are ideal for drug organizations to set up operations.