WASHINGTON — Southern California has made a significant dent in fighting drugs in the last year, knocking out about 80 high-level trafficking organizations, but it remains a major "gateway" for methamphetamine, cocaine and other drugs, according to a federal report released Wednesday that tracks the progress of anti-narcotic efforts nationwide.
The Southland's diverse cultures--along with its affluence--have combined to make Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino and Orange counties "an open market for drug use, distribution and manufacturing," the report from the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy said.
The problem reflects, on a larger scale, a nationwide rise in methamphetamine and certain other drugs, Barry McCaffrey, director of the drug policy office, said in closing out a two-day conference that brought together several hundred law enforcement officials from across the country.
"We do not just have a national drug problem. What we really have is a series of local drug epidemics," he said. Despite lowered drug use and other signs of progress since the crack epidemic of the 1980s, "the country is still awash in high-purity, low-cost drugs," he said.
But there is cause for optimism, he said.
In Southern California, law enforcement efforts have succeeded in putting major traffickers behind bars and making drugs harder to find on the streets, pushing up the price of methamphetamine by about 50% this year to a high of $6,000 per pound, the White House report found. Cocaine has seen a smaller price hike, rising 6% to a high of $17,000 per kilo.
Such successes were one reason that the White House drug office this week named its Southern California anti-narcotics program as the outstanding program in the nation.
Over the last 10 years, the White House has created 31 "high-intensity" drug zones across the country, funneling more money, resources and attention to help those areas in the fight against drug trafficking. Los Angeles was one of the first zones created under the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Program.
Some critics say that the $190-million program lacks a clear focus and strategy, serving mainly as a way for federal authorities to trumpet their successes and pour more money into the war on drugs. But federal authorities said the program--as seen best in Los Angeles--allows local, state and federal anti-narcotics officials to marshal their resources more effectively.
The report released Wednesday, giving snapshots of each of the 31 drug zone programs nationwide, found that the Southern California program in the last year has managed to "dismantle" 80 of the 185 drug trafficking organizations that it targeted in the region and has severely disrupted another 45 networks, seizing 23.4 tons of illegal drugs.
Earlier this year, one of the program's Los Angeles task forces--encompassing 38 law enforcement agencies--made six separate busts of a group based in Mexicali, Mexico, that was allegedly smuggling black tar heroin across the border to safe houses in Los Angeles, Santa Ana and Riverside, then distributing the drugs nationwide.
The busts produced 18 arrests and the seizure of more than $3 million in heroin, officials said. Prosecutions are still pending, but authorities believe that they have forced the Los Angeles distribution network out of business--at least temporarily.
The majority of the disbanded networks have been methamphetamine producers and distributors, often based out of Mexico or run by Mexican nationals who have entered the United States, said Michelle Leonhart, special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Agency's Los Angeles office and chairwoman of the executive committee of the region's high-intensity program.
Of the vast quantities of illegal narcotics that enter the United States through the Mexican border, as much as 70% winds up in Southern California, the White House report said.
Because of the recent crackdown, many drug trafficking organizations have come to view the Southland as too "hot" a region in which to do business, moving their bases elsewhere, the report said.
The price of Freon--a key ingredient in "cooking" methamphetamine--has doubled in the last year, Leonhart said, "and local dealers cannot find the chemicals they need in Los Angeles. We have forced them to go elsewhere."
Drug traffickers may still be rampant in Southern California, "but we are seeing the problem a lot more clearly, and our law enforcement people are really pulling together," said Roger F. Bass, director of the Los Angeles high intensity program.
"It can be a slow process," he said. "These are complex organizations so it takes time to identify them and take them down. It doesn't happen overnight."