EL PASO, Texas (KVIA) -- More than 1,500 pounds of methamphetamine have been seized in the El Paso region this year. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has led a massive crackdown on the illegal trade of the drug, including here in El Paso. The pandemic has presented new challenges for cartels.
"The drug traffickers have not stopped. They are going to continue to do business. They just take more chances now," said Carlos Briano, a DEA spokesperson.
It has been roughly eight months since North American borders were closed to non-essential traffic to slow the spread of Covid-19. Since those border restrictions took effect, the number of personal vehicles coming into El Paso from Mexico has dropped by about 60%, according to data from the U.S. Department of Transportation. However, the DEA's Acting Administrator Timothy Shea says cartels are adapting to continue pushing drugs across the border. In El Paso, he says they are banking on methamphetamine.
"Meth is by far the biggest threat here in El Paso, but it's also a huge threat around the country," Shea said.
In February, the agency launched 'Operation Crystal Shield' to tackle the problem. El Paso was one of eight regions selected for the program.
"I think one of the biggest challenges that we have very close to here is three major Mexican cartels operating in the same relatively small geographic area. That's fairly unique," Shea said. "It's a trade shipment point where you see meth in large volume coming through and going to the other parts of the country. That's a big problem."
Shea says border restrictions slowed the drug trade at first while cartels learned new strategies.
"It was previously smaller shipments in more frequent amounts, more frequent times," he said. "Now they've done larger shipments. They've taken greater risks."
Shea says cartels are also building up stockpiles, but they still cash in while the supply is tight. Pre-pandemic, one pound of liquid meth could cost about $2800. When Covid first hit, the price more than doubled to about $6000.
The drug is versatile too.
"Methamphetamine can be imported both in powder form, pressed pills or what a lot of people don't realize is in liquid form," Shea said.
"We've seen it inside of transmission fluid, mixed in with paint, mixed in with roofing sealant, any type of bottled water, inside of Mexican juice products, Mexican candy, inside of hollow pipes," Briano said.
"We've even seen it in the form of candles where they suspend the crystal meth in a candle wax and then melt it down and convert it back into drugs," Shea said.
As cartels get more creative, agents must work harder to ensure they're staying safe.
"Any potential exposure can be super dangerous, so they have to at least put on the most basic protection," Briano said.
Agents wear personal protective equipment before heading in to inspect a drug seizure. They will ultimately collect evidence for prosecution.
"They have to be prepared in the event of an agent succumbing to something, whether it's physical or chemical," Briano said. "You have to be able to hold the agent, decontaminate the agent prior to transporting to a medical facility because they can't contaminate the ambulance. They can't contaminate the hospital."
Back at the border, restrictions remain in place. Once they're lifted, the DEA knows cartels will be aggressive and try to push stockpiles across the border.
"If we're going to deal with the problem in the United States, El Paso is a ground zero for much of this," Shea said.