Law Enforcement Has Fought The Constantly Evolving Threat Of Meth Addiction And Manufacturing Since Its First Appearance In 1988.
ELKHART -- Less than a year after a series of significant arrests in 2005, members of Elkhart County's undercover law enforcement unit concluded they had crippled a drug-trafficking organization importing Mexican methamphetamine into the area.
But in that eight months, the market for meth had been established. The drug began affecting Elkhart County in a violent new way. Small, volatile and dangerous homemade labs began cranking out meth.
Now, the offenders are also the victims: members of our own community, addicted to a cheap and readily available drug.
JUST A TASTE
Indiana State Police first reported meth in Indiana in 1988. By 2003, the Elkhart County Drug Task Force knew it was fighting a different battle than the rest of the Midwest.
"At that particular time, most of the meth that you would hear about in the Midwest was meth-lab related," said Elkhart County Prosecutor Curtis T. Hill Jr. "While people were talking about meth labs in many of the rural parts of Indiana, we were talking about the imported meth that was coming here."
Members of drug-trafficking organizations were smuggling the drug from Mexico or from super-labs along the United States border and Pacific Coast, Hill said, and bringing it to Elkhart, Ind.
The meth was "good quality, low-priced and lot's of it," Hill said.
A WAR WITHOUT BOUNDARIES BEGINS
In 2003, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Elkhart County Drug Task Force, and South Bend and Elkhart police began investigating the drug-trafficking organization led by Francisco Aguirre.
A cell of the Oregon-based drug-trafficking organization had been trafficking bulk methamphetamine at low prices from 2002 to 2006 to establish new markets, Wichern said. They used Elkhart, largely because of its location between Detroit and Chicago and its access to the Indiana Toll Road, said Dennis Wichern, assistant special agent in charge at the DEA-Indianapolis.
Police arrested seven members of Aguirre's gang in 2005 and seized 12 pounds of methamphetamine in Elkhart, Wichern said. Over the next three years, police in northern Indiana arrested eight more members -- including Aguirre -- and seized 48 pounds of meth, 30 kilograms of cocaine, 2 ounces of heroin, $75,000 cash and six weapons.
"Often when law enforcement seems to dismantle an organization, someone steps up and quickly reorganizes it," Wichern said. "But in this case, it was done."
THE FIGHT CAN'T CURE THE FIX
During the meth investigation, the newly-formed Elkhart County Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Unit decided to branch off and initiate its own assault on Mexican methamphetamine, Hill said.
"They're looking to build a historic case that may take months, years going back to the source," Hill said. "While that happens, a local community like Elkhart can really get the brunt of it."
Within a couple of years, the effort wrapped up with series of major arrests and significant drug and money seizures, he said.
The price of meth climbed from $4,000 to $17,500 per pound, essentially putting "an end to that huge influence of methamphetamine from the Mexican market," Hill said.
But it also was the beginning of a new phenomenon, at least for the Elkhart County area.
The supply had suddenly shrunk, but the demand remained, Hill said. When users could no longer buy on the streets, he said, they start looking for alternative sources.
"Then you start to see the shift," Hill said.
WHEN THE BATTLEFIELD IS THE BACK YARD
"When you have a significant demand for such a nasty thing as meth, that tells you something about your community that you just don't want to hear," Hill said. "But we have to all listen to it and recognize it because it is the focal point of trying to address the demand."
Earlier this year, the prosecutor's office produced multiple public-awareness commercials depicting meth labs in an average home, not the "nasty facade" that people often imagine for a lab setting, Hill said. Anyone can get hooked on meth, Hill said, and meth labs can be right next door.
"The problem is going to be when that house blows up and it has someone in the house that is innocent, like a child, or someone next door," Hill said.
Neighborhoods decline when people lose their property and houses are sitting vacant for months or years because they were raided and condemned, Hill said.
"It is a huge trickle effect in terms of how you want your community to be, to look, to feel at the end of the day," Hill said.
FIGHTING ON MULTIPLE FRONTS
Numerous statistics say Elkhart County is the top county in Indiana when it comes to meth labs, but Hill isn't so sure.
"I can't tell you if we have more meth than other locations in Indiana. What I can tell you is that we have apparently discovered more or exposed more," Hill said.
The goal now, Hill said, is cracking down on those who manufacture and distribute methamphetamine while fighting the ongoing battle against those trying to bring it in.
Even broader challenges than arresting offenders, though, is attacking the demand for meth, Hill said. That demand -- the addiction -- proves to be one of the worst, which makes fighting this epidemic from a treatment standpoint nearly impossible on the government level.
"The statistics that I've heard are so low that throwing a great deal of resources at it trying to treat people from this addiction is really problematic," Hill said.
That leaves users, even those trying to recover, vulnerable to the drug-traffickers that started the meth plague in Elkhart County.
In November 2008, the ICE unit uncovered a plot to get Mexican meth back into Elkhart County. That meth made it to a home on C.R. 22, where police confiscated 18 pounds of pure Mexican methamphetamine with the potential street value of $1.6 million in January.
People need to realize how close meth is to them, their homes and their families, Hill said. When they know "they have skin in the game," he said, people tend to get more vested in the solutions -- largely by picking up the phone and reporting suspicious activity.
"Those challenges are not insurmountable if we are all working on the same page," Hill said.
- - 1987: Elkhart County Drug Task Force, mostly formed to react to drug incidents, is formed.
- - 1988: Meth and meth labs are first identified in southern Indiana.
- - 1994: Indiana State Police have worked three meth labs and know of 401 meth-related cases throughout the state.
- - 2002: For the first time, the number of meth-related cases submitted to state police exceeds the number of powdered cocaine cases reviewed by ISP.
- - 2003: Curtis T. Hill Jr. is elected Elkhart County Prosecutor and the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Unit is formed to take a new, direct approach to drug problems.
Also in 2003, the unit, under the Elkhart County prosecutor's office, begins working with the Drug Enforcement Administration and other federal entities investigating a drug-trafficking organization ( DTO ) dealing large quantities of meth in Elkhart.
- - 2004: Hill testifies to the House of Representatives, Committee on Government Reform about the growing problem of methamphetamine.
- - 2004 - 2005: The Elkhart County Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Unit launches an independent investigation into the DTO targeting Elkhart.
- - 2005: Seven members of that DTO are arrested. Over 12 pounds of methamphetamine is seized in Elkhart.
- - 2006: The Interdiction and Covert Enforcement Unit forms under the supervision of the Elkhart County prosecutor's office with the aim of proactively fighting drug crimes by targeting upper-level subjects in organized crime.
Also, in 2006, four more members of the DTO are arrested and charged in South Bend federal court.
- - 2007 - 2008: Four more members of the DTO are arrested, concluding the investigation.
- - 2008: In March, Elkhart Mayor Dick Moore pulled four of six city officers off the ICE unit. On the same day, Hill asked that all of Elkhart officers leave the ICE team, calling Moore's move "the single most devastating setback in public safety in the last 10 years."
Also, Indiana State Police reports that Elkhart County ranks second in the state for the most meth labs seized in 2008. There were 50 meth labs in the city of Elkhart, making the City with a Heart the top city in the state for meth labs in 2008.
- - 2009: In January, the ICE unit seizes 18 pounds of pure Mexican methamphetamine with the potential street value of $1.6 million. This is the first known attempt of drug cartels to establish a market in Elkhart County since 2007.
In February, the Elkhart County prosecutor's office launches its "We Won't Stop" campaign with public awareness television and radio commercials about meth labs in average neighborhoods.
November 29, 2009