SAN DIEGO – A doctor who wrote prescriptions for nearly a million tablets of the painkiller hydrocone last year has been charged with seven others in what authorities described as a strike against a ring that smuggled prescription drugs to Mexico from the U.S., according to federal indictments obtained Friday.
The unusual operation brought a flood of yellow and blue hydrocodone tablets to Tijuana pharmacies, where American addicts snapped them up over the counter on jaunts across the border from San Diego, investigators said.
Authorities speculate that it was easier for smugglers to unload large batches of pills at those loosely regulated pharmacies than to distribute them in small amounts through American street dealers.
It’s also profitable: A smuggler who buys a pill for about $2 in the United States can sell it to a Mexican pharmacy for about $3.50, and the American addict pays about $6 to bring it back home.
“We got Tijuana in the palm of our hand,” Jason Lewis, one of the accused smugglers, said in a wiretapped conversation, according to a search warrant affidavit filed in the case. “We’ve been doing this for years, bro.”
The risk of getting caught carrying drugs across the border into Mexico is minuscule. Motorists and pedestrians are almost never stopped for questioning, unlike the tough scrutiny they face when entering the United States.
No hydrocodone pills and only 90 oxycodone pills were seized from Mexico-bound travelers at U.S. border crossings in fiscal 2009, the year before the investigation began.
“This organization found the black market in Mexico as the least risky way to conduct their business,” said Derek Benner, special agent in charge of investigations at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in San Diego.
Investigators say the San Diego ring is the first they found that was smuggling drugs into Mexico.
The 17-month investigation resulted in Tuesday’s arrest of Dr. Tyron Reece, a 71-year-old general practitioner who runs a solo practice in the Los Angeles suburb of Inglewood.
Reece wrote prescriptions last year for about 920,000 hydrocodone pills, which are commonly sold under the brand names Vicodin and Lortab, authorities said.
Investigators said Anthony Wright, 67, drove rented cars several times a day to Los Angeles from a distant suburb to get the pills to couriers who lived in San Diego’s northern suburbs.
Smugglers strapped pills to their bodies or hid them in engine compartments before crossing the border.