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Meth use, distribution spikes

EDITOR’S NOTE — The Odessa American used pseudonyms for the woman in West Odessa and the undercover narcotics officer for their safety.

Amy said she’s had bicycles, an air compressor, a table saw, a shop vac and a number of other items stolen from her West Odessa home, thievery she suspects ultimately funds neighbors’ drug habits.

She said she knows of at least four or five houses where users of meth live at or sell or produce the drug.

“You suspect (people are on drugs),” Amy said. “You can tell a normal couple when they’re walking down the street.”

She said the people she suspects are on drugs act like they’re “scoping out” her house and other places in the neighborhood, presumably to steal items they can sell to buy more drugs.

And the purchase of drugs is actually what many instances of burglary, identity theft and other crimes stem from, Odessa Police Department narcotics officer Jason said.

“I think the majority of the crimes have to do with dope,” Jason said.

With only four officers in the division, however, Jason said there’s only so much they can do to detect and stop the distribution of drugs, and the use of drugs likely will never stop no matter how many officers they have.

Regardless, he said, the division goes undercover, buying from dealers to make arrests or pass on larger cases to federal authorities

Odessa’s not the only place in the Permian Basin with a drug problem, but Jason said it’s a major hub, something gathered from local and federal investigations showing as much.

Deliveries will come from Mexican “super labs,” where ephedrine, a major component of methamphetamine, is easier to access, Jason said. Those deliveries arrive in Odessa, where the drug is offloaded and distributed throughout the Basin.

THE ODESSA PROBLEM

Arrests for methamphetamine-related crimes — such as distribution and possession — have spiked in the last three years, according to the Odessa Police Department.

In 2013, the department made 50 arrests for methamphetamine crimes, which nearly tripled in 2014 when officers made 131 arrests.

Through Sept. 24 of this year, the department has arrested 170 people on meth crimes.

Jason said the demographics of meth have changed, as well. Originally a drug used mainly by white people and most notably the Aryan Brotherhood and Aryan Circle, Jason said the drug has crossed the racial divide with Hispanics and blacks also using and selling the drug.

“There’s a whole underworld of stuff going on that people don’t know about,” Jason said, noting that he believes Odessa is in critical shape as far as drugs go.

Some people with drugs can do dumb things, such as a man at a local restaurant found with cocaine sticking out of his baseball cap who told Jason, “I didn’t sell it so it’s not illegal.” But others are heavier hitters in the drug trade, with many higher ups in organizations living in the Odessa area.

One such person owned a large house west of town that had a secret room concealed by a spring-loaded door where police suspected he hid his drugs, Jason said. The man was so well connected and well-known in the drug world that narcocorrido songs, or songs that praise drug dealers, are sung about him.

Ector County Sheriff Mark Donaldson said more meth dealers in the area are carrying guns than before, and most of the chases the sheriff’s office is involved in are because of meth.

“The other thing about it is around here, they’re seeing the purity level is in the high 90s, compared to what it used to be,” Donaldson said.

But the concern he has about drug trade in Odessa doesn’t seem to be shared by the community, he said, as most people he’s spoken to only have a passing interest in the drug problem.

“Some people are like, ‘Oh, I think my neighbor deals drugs,’ and that’s it,” Jason said. “It’s like it’s acceptable.”

The effects of the drugs, from human trafficking and prostitution to violence, are the real cost, he said.

Meth is viewed much the same as other hard drugs such as cocaine and heroin, Jason said, mostly because of the violence associated with the drugs.

“(Violence happens) just because of the money involved,” Jason said. “Because that’s what it’s all about.”

Drug dealers and distributors protect their investment, he said, so when executing a search warrant or doing a raid, police are not shy in using SWAT teams to help them.

The officers also take a special risk when going undercover, to purchase drugs as part of investigations, as they don’t have the badge to identify that they are police officers like usual.

At the same time, while undercover the officers worry about whether their cover has been blown.

“I know me and my guys are always thinking, ‘They know we’re cops, they know we’re cops … damn it, they know we’re cops,’ ” Jason said.

But they try to act as normal as possible he said; if a narcotics officer is normally talkative, they try to be talkative while undercover.

Jason said he does not go undercover on and off for more than a few weeks, as the department doesn’t have the resources to do more. Longer investigations are handed off to federal authorities.

Some arrests come on normal traffic stops, such as 32-year-old Javier Bernal Duran.

Duran was arrested Tuesday on a warrant for possession of cocaine, but officers also reported finding 5.1 grams of methamphetamine in a bag between the driver’s seat and the center console and concealed in a fake can of shaving cream.

Officers also reported finding $1,040 in cash.

Duran was arrested and charged with the first-degree felony of manufacture or delivery of methamphetamine.

Duran was held Friday at the Ector County Detention Center without bond on a parole violation.

DRUGS THROUGHOUT THE BASIN

Chief Deputy Israel Campos with the Reeves County Sheriff’s Office said his department recently confiscated 13 gallons of liquid-form methamphetamine, a rare find by police that is worth millions of dollars.

Because his county is in the crossroads of major routes to transport methamphetamine, he said they see a lot of it going through, especially because of the super labs in Mexico.

Whereas previously the Mexican cartels would mostly deal in cocaine, Jason said, they are now putting the small “tweaker labs” out of business with meth.

Police used to bust 50 to 60 of such labs per year, but Jason said they haven’t had a small meth lab bust in several years now.

“It’s just not profitable for those people to do it,” Jason said. Now it’s not uncommon to find a pound or kilogram of the drug coming in from Mexico.

Odessa has traditionally seen a lot of drugs come through it, he said, mainly due to the interstate and the town’s size.

“Odessa is one of the major outlets,” Jason said. “Just because it’s small enough to where they can control what they do, but it’s big enough to hide it.”

Drug shipments can be offloaded near the interstate in a matter of minutes, and larger federal investigations are made more difficult by the turnover in people, layers of drug operations and the false names used by perpetrators, he said.

Art Fuentes, chief of police with the Fort Stockton Police Department, said his town has also seen its fair share of problems due to meth.

“We are experiencing, and I think everyone in this area is experiencing, meth and its byproduct,” Fuentes said, including thefts and other related crimes. “We’ve had some violent issues with some people that were very obvious we suspected to be on meth.”

Fuentes said the problem in his community is twofold, though, as the meth will go through Fort Stockton to Odessa, but then dealers will bring it back to Fort Stockton to sell once it is given to the dealers.

“Once it gets to Odessa, we’re finding that there are people that are actually coming back to Fort Stockton and selling it here,” Fuentes said. “So we’re getting a double dose of it coming through here.”

In response, Fuentes said his department is in the early stages of deploying a drug dog, with an officer already training for the position.

Closer to the border in Terrell County, Sheriff Clint McDonald said because no port of entry is at his county, they don’t see much meth coming from over the border. However, he said even further away they are also feeling the effects of the meth coming down to his county.

“It’s coming across the border and it looks like it’s coming back to us from the north,” McDonald said. “We’re a small community but we’re starting to see it, and we’re trying our best to keep it out of here.”

LOCAL RESPONSE

Donaldson said his department only has two deputies assigned to keeping up with drugs, but they also lean heavily on the Drug Enforcement Administration to help with investigations.

“I don’t have enough people,” Donaldson said. “I could use 20 people just in narcotics to work in Ector County and they’d all be busy. But I don’t have those.”

Donaldson said the increase in meth is not just a local problem, but a national problem. And while it could be prevented by keeping it at the border, Donaldson said border patrol already seizes drugs there and would need more leeway to inspect vehicles to collect more of the drugs.

“The only way to stop it is to shut off the demand for it,” Donaldson said. “And I don’t know how that’s ever going to happen.”

Jason said much of the same, noting that demand is much of what keeps the industry going.

OPD Chief Tim Burton said his department continues investigatory work with federal and other agencies to crack down on distribution.

“We’ve stepped up our street enforcement through patrol, which is reflected in some of the numbers, I think,” Burton said.

If not for the shortage of officers throughout the department, Burton said he would like to boost the number of narcotics officers, as would most law enforcement agencies.

Even so, the supply of drugs coming from Mexico creates unique problems for local police.

“It becomes very problematic for us because the influx of supply is unmanageable from a local perspective,” Burton said. “It’s particularly worrisome in the sense that methamphetamine is a very devastating drug. It’s highly addictive and at the end of the line, it ruins the individual. It ruins families.”

Amy, who said she’s even had problems with drugs among her family members, said she’s worried about her grandchildren, who are now getting old enough to be influenced by others who take drugs.

“Property? You can replace it. But when you find out that your 13-, 14-year-old grandson has tried weed …” she said. “You think it’s bad right now? I think it’s going to get worse. I think we’re going to have to go back to putting bars on windows. Nobody is safe.”

Contact Jon Vanderlaan on twitter at @OAcourts, on Facebook at OA Jon Vanderlaan or call 432-333-7763.

This article was written by Jon Vanderlaan from Odessa American, Texas and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.


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