Pictured above: PURITY TEST: A DEA forensic chemist tested bags of meth for purity and potency. Lab workers, whose names are withheld, are often called as expert witnesses in drug trials.
Somewhere along his path to a better life in the U.S., William De Roo-Ramirez found himself hauling carloads of meth up to Minnesota for one of the same drug cartels that wrought horror back in his home country of Mexico.
The job paid well — promising as much as $20,000 for each delivery — and business was brisk. Ramirez had already made the trip more than 15 times when authorities pulled him over in Oklahoma in January and found 152 pounds of crystalline shards packed inside the Toyota Camry he had borrowed from a friend in Phoenix, one of the biggest meth loads ever stopped on its way to Minnesota.
The next day, the clean-cut 26-year-old led federal agents to three of his buyers in the Twin Cities. One, arrested after leaving a Target parking lot on Lake Street in Minneapolis, told investigators that he had taken delivery of some 100 pounds of meth from Ramirez in the previous two months.
The arrests of Ramirez and his associates are the latest proof that meth, after largely fading from public view a decade ago, has come roaring back. It’s more potent, more plentiful and cheaper than ever, and this time around the Mexican drug cartels that control it have hand-picked Minnesota as the regional hub for their entire Upper Midwest meth trade.
State and federal investigators in Minnesota seized almost 1,500 pounds of meth last year — four times the total retrieved five years ago. Some of that meth was bound for major dealers from Green Bay to Fargo, but plenty was left over to wreak havoc here. The number of Minnesotans treated for meth addiction doubled in the past decade, to almost 14,000 last year — more than those treated for addiction to heroin and other opioids combined.
The number of overdose deaths, which peaked during the first meth crisis at 18 in 2006, soared to 140 in 2016, according to the most recent data compiled by the Minnesota Department of Health. At least 80 people have faced federal meth distribution charges over the past two years.
“Minneapolis-St. Paul has become a major market,” said Kent Bailey, a former senior U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent who now leads a federally funded counter-narcotics program in the metro. “You can sit there and keep your head in the freaking sand but the sheer volume of the drugs being seized indicates otherwise.”
Many of those caught supplying Minnesota’s meth have had direct ties to major, internationally known drug cartels in southern Mexico.
One couple managed a Brooklyn Center stash house where agents found 140 pounds of meth, much of it bound for Wisconsin. Another man fled the country as investigators closed in on a Crystal candy shop believed to double as a stop-off for meth from California. Last summer, agents arrested a hair salon owner as she burst out of her Lake Street shop gripping a duffel bag loaded with meth.
But their arrests — and even the historic seizure from Ramirez this year — have done little to slow the flood of meth. Barely a month after Ramirez was stopped, law enforcement happened upon another 82 pounds of the drug hidden in a pickup allegedly driven by a member of the same cell thought to be managed by the notorious Sinaloa cartel.
“Meth is just our biggest problem,” said Kenneth Solek, assistant special agent in charge of the DEA’s Minneapolis office.
‘METH IS STILL KING’
Meth’s resurgence has occurred largely in the shadow of an opioid epidemic that has claimed thousands of lives. A spending bill signed last month by President Donald Trump included about $4 billion in new funding for opioid abuse treatment, research and prevention. And last fall, Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered each U.S. attorney’s office to appoint an “opioid coordinator” to tailor a national anti-opioid strategy for each district.
In Minnesota, that official must balance that directive with a constant stream of meth cases. More than half of the 308 federal drug cases filed in Minnesota since 2013 have been for meth, including 41 cases last year. Over that same period, prosecutors charged 54 cases involving heroin, prescription drugs or other opioids. When Greg Brooker became acting U.S. attorney last year, he embarked on a statewide tour to meet with law enforcement officials to discuss their biggest challenges.
“The overarching message was that Minnesota is dealing with two simultaneous drug epidemics: opioids and methamphetamines,” Brooker said.
State law enforcement officials want more manpower to help keep up with a rising tide of drug investigations.
“Opioids and prescription drugs are an issue — no doubt about it,” Olmsted County Sheriff Kevin Torgerson said. “But meth is still king here.”
The high-water mark for meth abuse was considered to be around the mid-2000s, when clandestine meth lab explosions made headlines and billboard campaigns used jarring images of rotting teeth to warn of the drug’s effects.
In response, Minnesota, and later Congress, clamped down on the sale of products like nasal decongestants containing the chemicals used to make meth. Stories of meth being made in hotel bathtubs or dimly lit trailers disappeared. Makeshift meth labs found by Minnesota authorities plummeted from a high of 410 in 2003 to barely a dozen last year.
As recently as five years ago it would take Minnesota law enforcement more than a year to collect the amount of meth that Ramirez drove north in one day.
By then, however, the drug cartels had discovered a more efficient and cost-effective way to crank out a more potent version of the drug. The key ingredients are imported from China to “super labs” in southern Mexico, where the meth can be manufactured to look like crystal shards befitting one of its nicknames: ice.
Hidden in secret compartments in passenger vehicles or more often commingled with legitimate goods on tractor trailers, the drug is smuggled across the border and distributed throughout the country by a web of couriers like Ramirez. And while record-high busts may draw attention, federal agents in Minnesota estimate that they stop just 10 to 20 percent of the meth making its way into the state each year.
FIGHTING A POWERFUL GRIP
Gary Bogatz knows all too well how oppressive meth’s grip can be.
By his mid-20s, the Detroit Lakes resident found in the drug a salve for the loss of his father and the energy to balance the workload of legitimate construction jobs and illegal drug sales.
Bogatz’s appetite for meth fueled a life of crime to help pay for his addiction. He managed to avoid trouble for years, learning just the right tricks to avoid detection on the highways while “riding dirty,” jargon for driving around with drugs and weapons stashed in his truck.
But Bogatz’s luck ran out one night north of Detroit Lakes in 2013, when he led a squad car on a 15-mile high-speed pursuit. He managed to shed most of the meth and marijuana stowed in his truck, but flipped the vehicle when he hit a corner going 70 mph. He and a girlfriend survived the crash and Bogatz fled the state to try to get clean. But authorities quickly picked him up when he returned to town to retrieve another vehicle.
Bogatz tried to kick the drug while in and out of jail on probation violations and fraud charges, and even packed up everything he owned and prepared to move when an ex-girlfriend, also a drug addict, threatened to kill him. But before long, Bogatz blew his savings on hotel rooms and more drugs.
“I had the means, I had the vehicle,” Bogatz said, “… but I had a failure to launch when it came to this new life I wanted so much.”
One meth bender kept Bogatz up for 16 straight days, he said.
Meth’s heightened potency is partly behind the rise in both increasingly harmful overdoses and addiction treatment admissions, health officials believe. But while heroin and other opioids depress users’ respiratory systems, meth can fuel a feeling of hyperstimulation that promotes long binges.
Overdoses on meth can lead to cardiac arrest, but users can also be exposed to “secondary traumas” associated with their activity while on the drug, said Travis Olives, an emergency physician and toxicologist at the Hennepin County Medical Center. Not long ago, when Olives was in training at HCMC, he said he could count on one hand the annual emergency room visits for meth abuse.
“Now, not a shift goes by where I don’t see at least one patient with complications of or acute intoxication from meth,” Olives said.
Counties that reported seeing barely two dozen people annually for meth addiction a decade ago are now finding residents being treated by the hundreds. And officials with the Department of Human Services believe those figures represent a fraction of all those seeking help.
More Minnesotans are seeking treatment for meth abuse than any other drug, and treatment admissions have tripled from the rate of what was considered to be the height of the state’s meth epidemic in the mid-2000s. Meth’s new rise is reaching all corners of the state.
Still, health officials fear that the data reflect an undercurrent of rising meth dependency in Minnesota made worse by the greater purity of the drug — routinely tested to be almost 100 percent unadulterated — and its affordability. The price per pound has plummeted from $20,000 in 2009 to just $5,000 most recently, authorities say. At the retail level, investigators are finding that users can get their hands on a half gram of meth for $25 to $30.
“We have people literally eating their bodies from the inside out with methamphetamine,” said Brian Marquart, the Department of Public Safety’s drug and gang task force coordinator. “And the higher quality here makes me even more concerned that we’re losing a whole generation of people who can probably no longer be productive to society.”
Now 37, Bogatz recently celebrated his first full year of sobriety since his early teens — a feeling he describes as a high of its own. He begins many mornings with coffee at the Christian outreach center in Detroit Lakes where he finally sought help.
An old family friend who founded the center let Bogatz sleep on a couch while he waited to be cleared for admission to the group’s Compassion House treatment clinic down the road. He now wants to return to the clinic, but this time to apply for a job on its support staff later this year. Bogatz is also studying in hopes of becoming a licensed addiction counselor, one more foot soldier in the battle to beat back the steady march of addiction in Minnesota.
Bogatz knows his isn’t yet a common narrative, that many other stories end in prison or worse. But his own experience bearing witness to a seemingly endless stream of cartel-pushed meth does offer a framework of a solution. Like the cartels for which he worked while using meth, Bogatz envisions a network of “just a bunch of people coming together for one objective.” No titles, no ranks.
“When you have a problem that’s this prevalent, you don’t have to go out there and do nothing,” Bogatz said. “It comes to you because it’s already here. There’s no denying it.”
‘INTERRUPTING THE SYSTEM’
On an evening in January, DEA agents watched as Ramirez followed orders by cellphone from a Sinaloa cartel boss known only as “Marro” who allegedly directed his latest Twin Cities transactions. Fifty-seven pounds here. Twenty-seven pounds across town. Another 40 in a different parking lot.
“Every one of those cases would be significant operations that by themselves would be worthy of our time and priority,” Solek said. “And we identified four here. It’s not unusual now.”
Agents began collecting their first clues that Minnesota was becoming a new hub for Mexican meth within the past two years, first through the greater volume of the drug being seized and later after linking cells here to high-level cartel bosses across the country and in Mexico.
Investigators now call Minnesota a “trans-shipment point” for meth bound for other markets, with suburban homes like one used by a Brooklyn Center couple doubling as temporary storage for loads of meth intended for customers across state lines.
Wisconsin, where meth use has tripled since 2011, last year singled out the Twin Cities as the main source for the meth coursing into that state. In an interview, Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel said authorities noted a disruption to the meth supply throughout Northwestern Wisconsin shortly after the DEA stopped Ramirez in January.
“We consider seizing a pound of meth to be a really, really large drug bust,” Schimel said. “One hundred fifty-two pounds is interrupting the system.”
For now, interrupting the meth trade may be the best that law enforcement can hope for in the face of relentless demand and enduring supply. Were it not for a small-town Texas police chief stopping a pickup for speeding, another 82 pounds from Ramirez’s employers would have continued north unabated just weeks after his arrest.
The DEA compares the structure of Mexican cartel cells in the U.S. to supply chains where operatives are aware of their own roles but may not know much about other functions. That creates a challenge for agents trying to work their way up the ladder. Though Ramirez led agents to several local meth distributors, investigators believe he may be limited in what else he could provide: Once an operative gets caught, the higher-ups almost always ditch their phones and take other evasive measures. In one ongoing case, law enforcement officials say, agents are trying to keep up with nearly 30 phones in use by one area cell.
But what help Ramirez has provided so far has been enough to put him at risk of grave consequences at the hands of his former employers. A source familiar with the case said that relatives were prompted to put the family home up for sale and plan to move after a series of threats followed news of Ramirez’s cooperation.
Still, on a recent afternoon, Ramirez stood before a judge in a nearly empty Minneapolis federal courtroom to affirm that he was ready to plead guilty to conspiracy to distribute more meth than had ever been stopped on its way to Minnesota.
“It is my will,” he told Senior U.S. District Judge David Doty, speaking through an interpreter.
A newly buzzed haircut accentuated the deep scarring above Ramirez’s ears from wounds carved by kidnappers in the Pacific port city in which he grew up. Soon after his father paid the equivalent of a year’s salary to secure his release, Ramirez moved north to Tijuana and later crossed into the U.S. with help from a coyote who suggested that he help move meth to repay him.
More work followed, and Ramirez later abandoned a legitimate construction job he had landed.
“Did anybody force you into doing this?” Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Hollenhorst asked Ramirez last month.
“In a certain way, yes,” Ramirez replied, later adding: “Not the gun to my head, but they did threaten my family in Mexico.”
Ramirez is now in protective custody as he awaits a sentence that could put him in prison for decades, followed by almost certain deportation back to Mexico. Meanwhile, family members there and the mother of his child in the U.S. are being warned on social media about the consequences of his decision to cooperate.
“William had better shut up because these people are pissed off,” read a Facebook message to Ramirez’s girlfriend shortly after details of his assistance became public. “You know what kind of problems can happen.”
SOURCE: Star Tribune