August 8, 2103.

Yesterday my friend emailed me a story about a huge methamphetamine bust in Los Angeles County invovling the powerful street gang Florencia 13, the Mexican Mafia, (EME) priosn gang and the drug caretl LA Familia Michoacan. It remind me of an old story I was part of .

 On October, 8, 2000 a joint project by the Fresno, Sacramento and Modesto Bees about the growing threat of methamphetamine was published.  My role in the special section called "A Madness Called Meth" was to go to Mexico, to Michoacan, the epicenter of meth, and reported. Freno Bee Phtographer Craig Kolhrus and I spent several days hanging out there, This is a part of the project I wrote that appeared in Chapter 5..




The young man is nervous during interrogation.

The detective senses it. The story just doesn't add up. Why would anyone pay someone $1,000 just to drive three men from Long Beach to Porterville in Tulare County?

"I'll tell you this right now, once you tell me the truth you're gonna feel like a man," he tells the suspect.

"All I want to do is go home to my wife and kids," he replies.

The suspect, who claims he was on his way to visit his uncle in Fresno when he was caught up in a meth bust, begins to cry.

"Why are you treating me like a criminal?"

A long minute passes. Backed into a corner, the suspect gives something up: He was paid to bring the two men up "to cook."

"To cook what?"

"I don't know. They just say to cook."

This dance is about to come to an end.

"You told me you are from Michoacan. What part of Michoacan?"


Now the detective knows for sure. Javier Ochoa is part of the meth trade.

It's 45 minutes before midnight, and traffic is heavy on the sidewalks of Apatzingan. Bumpy, paved streets in the city's center are lined with hundreds of narrow storefront shops selling everything from new clothes to washing machines to caskets. Sidewalks are crowded with strollers.

A dressmaker watches the foot traffic. "I love living in Apatzingan," Rosalba Conchola says. "It's full of life. It's not dangerous, unlike the United States."

Music, Mexican and American, blares from passing cars, many of them new- or late-model American pickups or BMWs. There are obvious signs of money here, but there are no obvious signs as to why. It's simply understood. The chief products in this gritty farming town are mangoes, papayas, watermelons and meth. And a steady supply of meth makers.

Like some rap music in urban America, much of the popular music in Michoacan romanticizes the drug dealer. Sidewalk booth vendors in Apatzingan do a good business selling "Druga Corredos," the Mexican equivalent of gangsta rap. One song begins: "I am here across the border in America, and I have drugs for you . . ."

Apatzingan anchors the "Michoacan Trail," a pipeline that moves north through Guadalajara to Tijuana, pumping not only the product, but the people who cook it, across the California border and into the Central Valley.

"Yes, it is true," says police officer Ramon Lopez-Valencia as he slowly shakes his head. "The young people want to be crystal dealers."

Says Mike Huerta of the DEA in Arizona: "It's like they have some kind of mini academy down there in Apatzingan where they train people to cook and send them to California."

Apatzingan's police department is in the partially abandoned Palacio Municipal, a tattered two-story colonial with peeling paint, fresh graffiti and plenty of men with automatic weapons. (Across the street is the main plaza, the cathedral and the shining star of the city -- the building where on Oct. 22, 1814, Mexico's first constitution was signed.)

Fernando Fernandez-Castaneda, Apatzingan's police chief, is 23, stands about 5 foot 5 with his boots on and weighs about 130 pounds. His silver ballpoint pen sticks out of his white, blue-striped dress shirt. He wears gray slacks. Atop his burgundy vinyl-topped desk is a Samsung computer loaded with Microsoft Word. He wears no gun, but 3 feet to his left is an AK-47.

Fernandez-Castaneda smiles frequently and talks softly. He says he is determined to do something about meth in his town. "Crystal is a gigantic problem here. It has been for years," he says, as police officers armed with machine guns and pearl-handled revolvers amble outside his office. "We just used to take it all out of the country, but now the locals are consuming it, and it is very worrisome.

"We can spot the obvious drug men, and they don't care that we know what they do."

Their hair is neatly cropped, he says, and they wear gold chains and bracelets and ostrich-skin boots. They drive new pickups with fancy wheels.

During a routine raid of what Fernandez-Castaneda calls meth-rich neighborhoods, the chief runs into 23-year-old Jose Manuel. The two grew up in the same barrio. For the last six months, Manuel has a new passion -- snorting crank.

"It makes me feel excited," Manuel says, "makes me want to move."

"Is it hard for you to get it?" he is asked.

"I'll will show you how hard it is. I'll be back in 10 minutes." But Manuel, on a bike, needs a ride to score, and the chief, eager to show how common meth is, orders an officer to give Manuel a ride. After a few minutes, the chief is eager to continue the raid, so he and 22 officers in four pickups cruise along bumpy dirt roads, randomly stopping to search young men, who submit quietly.

Three crucifixes mounted with suction cups hang from the chief's windshield. A fourth lies near the gearshift -- to ensure his safety, he says. Jesus takes the place of seat belts. "It's like a university for crystal down here," says Fernandez-Castaneda, who estimates there are 10 major labs in Apatzingan and countless smaller ones. "They learn to cook and go to California."

After searching suspects in three neighborhoods, the police come up empty.

When the police arrive back at the station, Manuel shows off what is left of the quarter gram of meth he has copped for about $5. As he extends the dope, half covered in plastic wrap, the wind blows. The dope and the plastic wrap swirl out of his hand in a graceful arc, floating like a parachute to the pavement. Manuel grabs at it but misses, and the drugs fall to the concrete. He is last seen trying to sort the crystal from the dirt.

A short while later, a 17-year-old boy wearing a worn Cleveland Indians baseball cap sits on the chipped front steps of an apartment building. His old green bike rests next to him. He delivers for a nearby pharmacy but admits he wants his own type of pharmaceuticals.

"Yeah, I want my own organization one of these days," says Pablo Hernandez Rodales, taking off his cap to wipe sweat off his forehead. "I'm going to have me a new truck and five girls.

"You know, they are never going to stop the crystal now."