FRESNO, Calif. – In methamphetamine’s seedy underworld, traffickers are disguising the drug as a liquid to smuggle it into the United States from Mexico.
Dissolved in a solution, it’s sealed in tequila bottles or plastic detergent containers to fool border agents and traffic officers. Once deep in California’s Central Valley, a national distribution hub, meth cooks convert it into crystals – the most sought-after form on the street.
Tough policing has driven the highly toxic super-labs south of the border where meth is manufactured outside the sight of U.S. law enforcement, but the smaller conversion labs are popping up domestically in neighborhoods, such as one in Fresno where a house exploded two years ago.
People inside the home had sealed it tightly so the tale-tell fumes didn’t give them away.
“These guys, they don’t have Ph.D.s in chemistry,” said Sgt. Matt Alexander of the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office. “They’re focused on not getting caught.”
Investigators say it’s impossible to know how much liquid meth crosses the border, but agents in Central California say they have been seeing more of it in the past few years.
Officers raided a Madera home earlier this year, finding a lab used to convert liquid meth into 176 pounds of crystals with a street value over $1 million. Nobody was arrested, but agents said the bust dealt a blow to the organization behind the lab.
Mike Prado, resident agent in charge of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Investigation’s Fresno office, said law enforcement agencies are always on the lookout for creative ways cartels smuggle meth.
In the conversion process, cooks evaporate off the liquid and use highly combustible chemicals such as acetone to make crystals. The fumes are trapped inside. “A spark can turn this into a fireball,” Prado said.