Las Vegas resident Israel Tellez-Nava is no kingpin. He says he normally works as a landscaper.
But on the evening of Nov. 21 outside Kingman, Arizona, he found himself behind the wheel of his silver VW van weaving through traffic on Interstate 40 and chauffeuring 43 pounds of methamphetamine from a pickup point outside Williams 115 miles east on the busy highway. That’s where Tellez-Nava’s excessive speed and erratic driving caught the attention of the Mohave County Sheriff’s Office deputies attached to the MAGNET regional narcotics task force that patrols one of the nation’s busiest drug pipelines.
The traffic stop was anything but routine. The wide-eyed 35-year-old was so nervous he couldn’t keep his feet still or put his hands in his pockets. He clearly hadn’t expected to see the officers’ flashing lights in his rear-view mirror. When he was asked for his license and registration, according to the officers’ incident report, his hands trembled as he complied. He admitted he spoke little English and was about to be let off with a warning when an officer looking through a side window and noticed a partially opened box filled with small bundles wrapped in green cellophane. In all, three such boxes were found. Tellez-Nava was taken into custody, and the Arizona county’s busy drug interdiction team took into evidence 43 pounds (20 kilos) of methamphetamine with an estimated street value exceeding $2 million. Tellez-Nava was arrested and charged with possession and transporting dangerous drugs for sale.
It was a sizable bust, one soon noted by authorities in the press. But considering the size of the pipeline, the scale of the cartel-backed manufacturing of meth, and the voracious appetite of the American market, it amounted to grains of sand on an endless beach.
With the assistance of a Drug Enforcement Administration special agent and translator, details emerged that surely sounded familiar to law enforcement. Tellez-Nava was told he’d be paid $5,000 to closely follow a black Dodge Ram pickup driven by “El Cholo,” slang for “gangster,” from Williams to Las Vegas. Although he nervously contradicted his story multiple times, according to the report, the landscaper eventually admitted he “knew it was drugs in the _____ but did not know how much drugs.”
It was a lot of drugs. And this isn’t your outlaw biker uncle’s batch of stepped-on crank. If it’s like other loads seized in recent years, it’s manufactured in Mexico. Its potency is high, its purity higher still.
Even the experts can only estimate how many tons of methamphetamine enters the country through the Southwest border. But the Drug Enforcement Administration has a method of measuring the impact law enforcement efforts at slowing the flow have on the availability and price of the drug. From January 2012 to March 2017 the price of meth on the street declined 13.6 percent as competing Mexican cartels flooded an ever-expanding market, according to the DEA. While the misery wrought by prescription opioid abuse and the damage done by fentanyl made most of the headlines, meth was increasing its market share.
Although the Sinaloa cartel is probably the best known of the Mexican meth manufacturers and traffickers these days, thanks to the notoriety of its now-imprisoned boss Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera, the DEA reports the intensity among cartel competitors continues to increase. A majority of the country’s transnational criminal organizations (TCO) now operate factories with the American market in mind. Increased availability has driven down price.
That potency and proliferation have contributed to a nearly 400 percent rise in psycho-stimulant poisoning deaths, up to more than 7,500 in 2016 with 90 percent linked to meth intoxication, according to the DEA.
The trend continued in 2019. Phoenix DEA official Erica Curry tells me, “It’s coming across in larger quantities than we have ever seen.”
The agency’s meth seizure numbers by Arizona law enforcement rocketed from 11,887 pounds in 2017 to 26,578 pounds in 2018, and 31,511 last year. And the price of product per pound actually declined.
Las Vegas is far from alone as a market. Big cities and small towns are part of the American meth epidemic. But the nature of the beast has changed. Its manufacture and distribution is no longer the purview of outlaw motorcycle gangs and mom-and-pop “one-pot” cookers. Cartels import methamphetamine precursor chemicals by the container load from overseas to supply clandestine factories that annually churn out tons of product. From there, it finds its way across the border through bustling ports of entry and across the desert. Occasionally, a Las Vegas landscaper plays courier and gets caught.
This isn’t exactly breaking news, but it’s something to think about the next time you hear officials discuss the ongoing homeless issue in Southern Nevada. A sad percentage of those suffering most, including those least likely to seek and acceptance assistance even when it’s available, are buried by their addiction.
And meth proliferates here. Whether waiting for their next connection on the edge of a storm drainage blocks from UNLV, or frequenting the low-rent motels downtown and on the Boulder Highway, the signs of substance abuse among society’s poorest citizens isn’t difficult to find. And they’re worked relentlessly as easy customers for drug dealers.
On the Las Vegas streets, easy access to meth is a cruel card dealt to people already holding a losing hand.
John L. Smith is an author and longtime columnist. He was born in Henderson and his family’s Nevada roots go back to 1881. His stories have appeared in Time, Readers Digest, The Daily Beast, Reuters, Ruralite and Desert Companion, among others. He also offers weekly commentary on Nevada Public Radio station KNPR. His newest book—a biography of iconic Nevada civil rights and political leader, Joe Neal—”Westside Slugger: Joe Neal’s Lifelong Fight for Social Justice” is published by University of Nevada Press and is available at Amazon.com. Contact him at [email protected] On Twitter: @jlnevadasmith