Video: Meth industry moves south of the border

By Pete Williams Justice correspondent
NBC News
updated 8/25/2006 7:34:34 PM ET 2006-08-25T23:34:34

Federal agents in Atlanta this week unveiled one of the biggest stashes of methamphetamine ever found, worth more than $25 million — buried behind a home used by suspected Mexican drug dealers. It's the latest sign of a big shift in the meth trade, a trade considered by police nationwide as their worst drug menace.

"It's hard for people to fight this even with drug treatment," says Agent John Emerson with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). "It's hard for them to stay in drug treatment programs because of the powerful effects of the drug."

The number of home meth labs in the U.S. is down by a third — a result of new laws limiting access to cold and allergy medicines, which are the source of essential chemicals for illegal meth makers.

Now, Mexican drug lords are rushing to replace what's no longer made in the U.S.A., hauling in big loads like the one near Atlanta.

In fact, federal drug agents say they believe that more than three-fourths of the meth consumed in the U.S. now comes across this border from Mexico.

NBC News was granted exclusive access to the DEA's El Paso Intelligence Center, where agents scan dozens of databases to help catch drug smugglers.

"Six, seven thousand calls a month come right into this center here," says DEA's Tom Mavromatis, who directs the operation. "There has been an increase in methamphetamine coming into our country, specifically through the Southwest border. That's based on our seizures. We've seen the spike go up."

By tapping into the El Paso center, officers on patrol can do more than check a suspected meth smuggler's record. They can also learn whether a car or truck has been used to transport drugs before, a big plus in spotting traffickers.

Drug agents on the Southwest border are discovering meth brought across in ways both high tech and low — even using horses and backpackers.

"A backpacker can carry anywhere from 100 to 150 pounds of methamphetamine," says DEA agent Zoran Yankovich.

They're all part of the army of smugglers rolling in to make up for the drop in homegrown drugs.

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