Drug trafficking: S.C.’s Mexican connection

Smugglers increasingly are crossing the southern U.S. border by land to bring drugs into the state

jmonk@thestate.com, abeam@thestate.comApril 15, 2007 

  • BY THE NUMBERS

    A look at cases requiring interpreters in S.C.’s federal court district:

    47 Cases from 1985 to 2000

    417 Cases from 2000 to 2007

    779 Defendants since 1985

    49 Percent of defendants since 1985 who faced drug charges — the most of any offense

Enrique Valdovinos ran the Mexican restaurant Los Caporales — which means “The Cattle Bosses” — on Two Notch Road just outside Columbia.

But Valdovinos, 36, had a secret life. He had hidden in a car trunk to enter the United States illegally and had gone into drug smuggling. In fact, he had become a major local dealer, bringing into the Midlands up to 100 kilograms of cocaine worth almost $2 million in recent years.

Sentenced in February to 10 years in prison, Valdovinos represents a new trend in South Carolina’s thriving drug trade: Mexico is now the state’s primary source of illegal drugs, federal, state and local agents say.

Increased post-9/11 security at the state’s airports and ports has helped push the bulk of the drug trade over land, through Mexico.

Even the cocaine produced in South America is being moved into South Carolina primarily through Mexico.

Mexican drug rings “dominate trafficking in South Carolina,” according to a February report from the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, the nation’s lead drug-fighting agency. South Carolinians in rural and urban areas now consume Mexican drugs.

Mexican carriers transport cocaine on S.C. highways, harvest marijuana from rural fields and receive shipments of marijuana at some Hispanic stores, according to state and federal court records. They also have supplied methampethamines across the state as local meth production declines. And some even have been charged with distributing free samples of heroin to recovering addicts in the Charleston area.

“If you trace cocaine, marijuana, heroin and methamphetamine back far enough, they come out of Mexico and are brought to our area,” said John Ozaluk, head of the Columbia office of the DEA.

The growing Latino immigrant enclaves in states such as South Carolina provide increasingly attractive cover for Mexican drug smugglers once they get here, officials said.

But it has been the shift in drug routes that has been the biggest change.

Before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, many illegal drugs moved into the state directly from South America and the Caribbean, said Robert Stewart, chief of the State Law Enforcement Division, who has fought smugglers for 32 years. They came in by airplane or boat at the S.C. coast or at small inland airstrips, or they came into Florida by air or boat, then moved up I-95 to South Carolina, Stewart said.

High-tech anti-terrorist measures since 9/11 have all but shut down trafficking by air and boat in South Carolina, officials say.

The S.C. DEA office even pulled its agents out of the Columbia International Airport, where it once surveyed passengers.

The story is the same at the state’s port in Charleston.

Three years ago, border agents seized 2,038 pounds of illegal drugs at the port. Two years ago, the figure dropped to 629 pounds. Last year, it was down to 1 pound, according to the S.C. office of U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

While South Carolina has been able to curtail coastal trafficking, smugglers in speed boats and yachts still are active — and often seeing success — along Florida’s vast coastline.

The U.S. Coast Guard hasn’t seen a change in the number of drug seizures in recent years in the waters surrounding the Port of Charleston, but their comrades working the Caribbean shipping routes south of Florida have been busy, said Petty Officer 1st Class Donnie Brzuska, a Coast Guard spokesman.

“We are consistently breaking our own records,” Brzuska said.

BORDER IS ‘WIDE OPEN’

The dozens of cartels that move various drugs into the southwestern United States are set up like sophisticated businesses, said DEA spokesman Rusty Payne.

“Many of the Mexicans who run them are real smart. They are driven by the bottom line,” Payne said.

Like any nimble business owners, the drug lords reacted quickly when new S.C. and federal laws made it difficult to obtain pseudoephedrine, a major ingredient in highly addictive meth. Thus, just as South Carolina’s numerous “mom and pop” meth labs were declining sharply, Mexican suppliers began moving large quantities of meth — purer and more addictive — into the United States, Payne said.

National seizures of meth have fallen dramatically. In 2004, police and federal agents seized 17,170 labs and dump sites; in 2005, 12,484; in 2006, 6,435, according to the DEA.

Meanwhile, Mexican drug rings, operating on both sides of the border, now account for at least 80 percent of the meth consumed in the United States, according to the DEA.

“Mexicans have filled the void,” Payne said.

Seizures of all drugs along the border remain considerable.

Although admittedly incomplete because so many agencies are involved, DEA statistics along the U.S.-Mexican border show that in 2006, agents seized 12.7 tons of cocaine, 496 tons of marijuana, 268 pounds of heroin and 1,559 pounds of meth.

Cartels, controlled by drug lords, grow, manufacture or import various drugs in Mexico, Payne said. Then they transport the drugs to staging areas near the U.S. border.

There, gatekeepers — people who know border-area tactics such as how and where to stash water in desert areas — handle the smuggling. The gatekeepers might hire “coyotes” — people who lead the “mules,” the low-level workers who carry the drugs across, then link up with U.S. connections.

Drugs also enter illegally via established border checkpoints. The drugs are shipped in Federal Express packages, hidden in trucks, secreted in furniture, carried in cars, stashed in suitcases.

Drug enforcement officials often find themselves stymied by the decentralized network.

Mules don’t know about the drugs’ origins. In case of arrest, mules can’t reveal much about the ring. Moreover, drug smugglers often tell mules their families will be killed if they talk to law enforcement, officials said.

People who want a tighter Southwest border to keep the nation safe are aghast that the federal government isn’t doing more to stop the flow of drugs and illegal aliens.

“The border is wide open,” said Michael Cutler, a fellow with the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies, which supports tighter immigration policies. An agent with the former Immigration and Naturalization Services for 30 years, Cutler hunted terrorists, drug dealers and illegal aliens and has testified before Congress numerous times.

He said when the federal government has to send National Guard troops to beef up border security, it’s obvious there are not enough police patrolling the border. Thousands more officers are needed, he said. “And drugs can help fund terrorism,” he said.

THE S.C. SCENE

Once in the United States, the drugs flow east to distributor points such as Atlanta, where they are channeled to South Carolina.

“They come by car and truck,” SLED’s Stewart said.

Despite increased post-9/11 security, South Carolina remains awash in drugs because of the porous U.S.-Mexican border.

“There appear to be more drugs than ever before,” Stewart said. Although no one has a precise figure for the amount of drugs smuggled into South Carolina, Stewart bases his statement on his statewide contacts and knowledge of cases. Other law officers say the same.

As recently as last year, in June, the DEA called South Carolina, with its 200,000 or so addicts and users, a “consumer state.”

But in its February report, the DEA classifies South Carolina as an “end user, a staging area, and transshipment state for all illegal drugs.”

For example, law enforcement broke up a ring of Mexicans selling “black tar” heroin across the state, according to a 2006 complaint filed in U.S. District Court. And a shipment of 900 pounds of marijuana hidden in a truck that crossed the border at Texas was seized in Edgefield County.

Mexican smugglers also were arrested beginning in 2005 for selling a highly potent form of methamphetamine known as “ice” to Upstate dealers, according to state grand jury records. That kind of meth is what has been replacing less-potent, locally made versions.

The drugs also pass through South Carolina by car and truck on their way to other states. I-85 is a major Atlanta-North Carolina pipeline. And I-95 remains a key drug corridor for shipments from Florida to the Northeast, said Ozaluk, head of the DEA in South Carolina.

In October, police arrested two illegals, Cesar Lira and Victor Espinoza-Nanez, on I-85 near Greenville for transporting 25 kilograms of cocaine. They confessed to transporting the cocaine from Atlanta to Greensboro, N.C. They were each sentenced in federal court in early April to more than five years in federal prison.

A GROWING POPULATION

The increase in drug traffic from Mexico comes at a time when Mexican residents are on the rise in South Carolina.

In the past five years, South Carolina has recorded one of the country’s fastest-growing Hispanic populations. The Census Bureau estimates about 140,000 Hispanics live in the state, but the actual number is believed to be two or three times higher; USC researchers put it at 400,000. Of those in the Census count, 63 percent are from Mexico.

Some advocates for the immigrants are worried the news of the increased Mexican drug cases will taint South Carolinians’ view of immigrants, whether here legally or illegally.

Diego Sosa, 35, manager of Los Puentes IV, a Mexican supermarket on Decker Boulevard, knows that many people have a stereotype of his fellow countrymen as drug traffickers. But all countries have drug traffickers, he said, and most immigrants he knows work hard to send money home to their families.

“If they make $500 to $600, they send $350 back to their families in Mexico and keep $250 to live on,” said Sosa, whose store contains a money-wiring station. “They do everything for their families.”

As executive director of the Columbia-based Hispanic Outreach, Enid Santiago helps provide services to immigrants.

“They are pretty much law-abiding citizens. They don’t want to get into trouble,” she said.

Some Mexican traffickers are in the United States legally; others, like Valdovinos, are illegal.

No one knows how many drug pipelines there are, but law officers estimate there might be dozens.

Sometimes, Mexicans bring the drugs into South Carolina and sell to locals. Other times, South Carolinians drive to Atlanta — a favorite drug hub — and get the drugs, Ozaluk said. “They get it a little cheaper that way.”

Last month, a federal jury convicted Victor Mason, 43, of Orangeburg County, of bringing cocaine into South Carolina. Testimony at the trial showed he was a mule who picked up cocaine in Atlanta and brought it back for distribution in Orangeburg and Columbia. A Georgia trooper found 20 pounds of cocaine in Mason’s car trunk and testified — because of a cartel seal on the cocaine — that at least some of the cocaine had passed through Mexico.

The rise in the number of Mexican drug cases also is being felt in the state’s judicial system.

Mexican drug smugglers serving time in S.C. prisons far outnumber all other Latin nationalities. As of March 20, 61 were in state prison on drug charges, compared with 21 from seven other Latin countries such as Guatemala, Panama, Colombia, Cuba and Honduras.

In the federal court system in South Carolina, the number of Spanish-only speakers facing drug charges — and the use of taxpayer-funded interpreters — is on the rise.

In one pending heroin smuggling case in federal court, translation costs for wiretaps and documents for 20 Mexican suspects will hit $500,000, federal records say.

Interpreters also are used in state court, but it’s unclear if their use is on the rise; no one keeps easily obtainable statistics.

BIGGER CHANGES

The new drug trafficking patterns are spawning violence and corruption.

In Aiken, in 2002, Mexican Salvador Torres was shot to death in his pickup truck. Cash and drugs were lying on the seat beside him. He was suspected of being part of a marijuana smuggling ring that brought drugs into Edgefield County, said Assistant 11th Circuit Solicitor Ervin Maye.

In 2004, a SLED sting nabbed a narcotics officer with the Anderson County Sheriff’s Department.

Officer Matt Durham was selling meth that came from a Mexican ring, according to law enforcement. SLED entered the case at the request of Anderson County deputies, who learned one of their own had gone into the drug business. In less than six months, the crooked cop, now in prison, made more than $200,000 selling meth and strong-arming a dealer for “protection” money.

Usually, though, Hispanics are victims of crime rather than perpetrators, said 5th Circuit Solicitor Barney Giese.

Youth gangs in Richland County prey on migrant workers, robbing them and beating them, often on Friday and Saturday, just after they’ve gotten paid in cash, Giese said. Immigrants who are illegal won’t press charges, but those who are victims are more numerous than their population would indicate, Giese said.

Father Filoman Juya, vicar for Catholic Hispanics in South Carolina, said he hopes people will accept Hispanics on an individual basis.

Most, he said, “are working in areas where nobody else wants to work, for salaries no one else will accept. It’s not right to judge the whole community on the basis of the actions of a few.”

Reach Beam at (803)771-8405 and Monk at (803) 771-8344.

THE DRUGS

Major illegal drugs, all addictive, are smuggled in from Mexico. Users get a “high,” but they can also die or become impaired.

“Black tar” heroin. Made from a variety of Mexican poppy that produces a dark, gooey, syrupy form of the drug. Injected, snorted or smoked.

Cocaine. Brought in through Mexico but originating in South America. A white powder, mostly snorted. A variation of cooked cocaine is called crack, after the cracking sounds cocaine makes when cooking. Crack is smoked, usually using a homemade pipe.

Marijuana. Most commonly used illegal drug. A starter drug for many young users. Mostly smoked. Although said to be the least-addictive illegal drug, it can produce memory loss and loss of problem-solving skills, affecting one’s ability to do schoolwork and other tasks.

Methamphetamine. Snorted, injected or smoked. The high lasts longer and is more intense than other drugs, users say. But the drug also is highly addictive and physically destroys its users. “Ice” is a crystallized, highly addictive form of meth now being made in Mexico.

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