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METH INC.

METH INC.

Past the cut is an in-depth, long(!) Drug War piece new in the Strib.

It's about a recently sentenced, 23 year old drug dealer who authorities say, in recent years reeled in $250,000 a month. ... Federal authorities say Mexican cartels now control at least 80 percent of the meth sold in Minnesota and are filling the supply void being created by the demise of mom-and-pop meth dealers.

His network stretched from Minneapolis to the Red River Valley. ... [he's] an example of what they call a "cell-head" -- someone who has a family relationship within the cartel's organization back in Mexico. ... While in jail waiting to be sent to prison for 15 years, ... he allegedly tried to sell 500 grams of meth. He pleaded guilty last month and is scheduled to be sentenced in August. Under federal law, he could serve up to 10 more years.

His lawyer argued, "he was being manipulated by much bigger forces back in Mexico. ... he was very organized, kept track of customers and he delivered. But he was just one of these kids who is used as cannon fodder."

METH INC.

Meet Alberto Zatarain. He was the local face of a highly organized Mexican drug cartel selling high-grade methamphetamine across Minnesota. Now he's behind bars. But his case shows how cartel trafficking is intensifying here -- and why it's tough to stop.

Paul McEnroe, Star Tribune

In the eyes of the federal agents who secretly watched him, Alberto Zatarain was a drug dealer who made all the right moves.

He had at least three aliases. He switched cell phones every month and drove ugly old cars to avoid notice. After dark, he holed up and watched TV inside a rented matchbox house in Richfield that rattled from low-flying jets. No clubs, no parties, no women.

And every few months, when another runner came up from Mexico, Zatarain handed off suitcases of cash -- profits from a booming business that stretched from metro suburbs to farm towns in the Red River Valley to Fargo.

He was selling methamphetamine, and demand never let up.

Operating a network of stash houses from Richfield to Brooklyn Park, and often delivering meth hidden inside jars of instant coffee to customers, Zatarain and his band of couriers at times in recent years reeled in $250,000 a month.

"He controlled Minnesota and North Dakota," a federal drug-enforcement agent said.

Zatarain, 23, wasn't an independent operator. He was a point man for a shadowy, cunning cartel in Mexico that federal authorities say now dominates the illicit meth trade besieging Minnesota and the Midwest.

The cartel, rooted in Mexico's Sinaloa region, is producing a highly addictive form of the drug in large clandestine labs south of the border, then shipping stockpiles of it here to dealers such as Zatarain through a cross-country smuggling system.

But his success made him careless. Today, Zatarain is in the Sherburne County jail, convicted on federal drug-conspiracy charges, sentenced to 15 years, and awaiting transfer to federal prison. He is one of only a few large-scale meth dealers in Minnesota with ties to the Sinaloa cartel to get caught in recent years.

Court documents obtained by the Star Tribune, along with interviews with federal agents and attorneys involved in Zatarain's case, illustrate in detail how he operated before his organization unraveled. Zatarain also pleaded guilty last month to a second set of drug charges, from deals he allegedly tried to make in the past year while behind bars.

The cartel, meanwhile, is still flourishing, undeterred by his arrest and apparently capitalizing on a new state law that's wiping out the small-time meth producers once prevalent in Minnesota. The law restricts the sale of cold medicines that contain a chemical commonly used to process the drug.

Federal authorities say Mexican cartels now control at least 80 percent of the meth sold in Minnesota and are filling the supply void being created by the demise of mom-and-pop meth dealers. The cartels are ever more responsible for a drug scourge costing the state several hundred million dollars a year.

Federal agents say that Zatarain's case, in which nearly a dozen others with ties to the cartel also were prosecuted, has shed new light on how the Sinaloa cartel works. But not enough to shut it down.

Midway through this year, a Drug Enforcement Administration task force fighting the meth trade in Minnesota is on a pace to confiscate more cartel shipments here than ever. Last year, the task force seized nearly 50 kilos of the drug. Already this year, nearly 40 kilos have been seized.

Tom Kelly, the head of the DEA's office in Minneapolis, said the cartel's reach is enormous. "You can't stop it at the border of Minnesota," he said. "It's a constant uphill battle."

El Grande kept calling. His real name was Emilio Flores, and he was a cartel connection in Denver, a regional hub for heroin and meth on its way to Minnesota from Mexico. He wanted Zatarain, nicknamed Beto, to stay in the Twin Cities for the winter.

Normally, to keep a low profile, the cartel rotated its distributors in and out of the metro area every few months. But business was too good for Zatarain to return home to Tepic, a city in western Mexico where the cartel has roots.

El Grande and Zatarain, federal agents listening in on wiretaps soon would learn, spent a lot of time on the phone, often talking in code about selling meth -- which is also known on the street as crystal, glass or ice.

Since 2002, Zatarain had worked throughout the Twin Cities for the cartel. Initially, he sold heroin. But it was impossible to ignore the shift in consumer demand for meth -- especially in the suburbs, where authorities say it now ranks alongside cocaine and marijuana as a drug of choice.

For every sale of heroin, DEA agents estimated, Zatarain could make 10 sales of meth. The difference could mean thousands of dollars. By mid-2004, meth, selling sometimes at $12,000 a pound, had become the focus of Zatarain's operation for the cartel.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew Dunne, the head of the Minnesota office's narcotics section, said that the meth pouring into the state from Mexico has become the focus of law enforcement officials, too.

"It is the number one drug threat facing federal drug prosecutors and agents in the Midwest," Dunne said.

The cartel to which Zatarain reported, law enforcement officials say, studied the exploding demand for meth in Minnesota and the Midwest and created a sophisticated business plan to capitalize on it. In many ways, authorities say, the cartel's tactics resemble how a corporation enters an international market.

"The cartel is run like a regular business and set up like a Fortune 500 company," Kelly said. "It has people who work on the transportation side, the finance side, the communications side, and they all work in concert to move a product to where the demand is very high."

Far from the reach of the DEA, the cartel first built labs in Mexico capable of large-scale production. To get great quantities of the drug made quickly, federal investigators say, the cartel also illegally began importing tons of ephedrine, a key ingredient in meth, from India and China. One lab in Mexico soon could produce up to 50 pounds of meth a week.

By contrast, homemade meth labs in Minnesota -- whose numbers have plummeted since the state restricted the sale of cold medicines last year -- produce only a small fraction of that amount in a week.

To get meth to the Midwest, the cartel began using underground distribution networks that had been set up to smuggle Colombian cocaine, Mexican heroin and marijuana across the border, federal investigators say. Los Angeles, San Diego and Phoenix became major distribution hubs for cartel-made meth.

Shipments of the drug usually reach Minnesota from the Southwest via interstate highways, in cars or trucks with secret storage compartments that cartel couriers constantly change to try to stay one step ahead of state troopers who are getting intensive new training on their smuggling tactics.

Kelly, who spent time working for the DEA in the Southwest, said it has been nearly impossible to stop smuggling along the border there.

"They send five cars through at one time, and if one gets caught it doesn't matter because the rest got through, and they're on the way north," he said.

In May, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales announced a partnership with Mexico to fight meth trafficking. The DEA and Mexico plan to form special investigative teams along the border and compile a most-wanted list of meth traffickers.

Dunne said federal prosecutions of meth cases in Minnesota are soaring. In the past five years, those cases have more than doubled -- from 43 to 104.

But, he said, "We are only catching the tip of the iceberg of the methamphetamine that is coming into Minnesota from Mexico."

Catching Zatarain took three years.

In 2002, the DEA's task force in Minneapolis heard of a heroin dealer in Minneapolis whose name had been mentioned on a federal wiretap in Denver. The dealer was called "Beto," and he was being supplied in part from Denver by Flores, the guy nicknamed El Grande, who was also later convicted on drug charges.

But the DEA didn't figure out who "Beto" was until the spring of 2004. Through an informant, federal agents learned that Zatarain had gone home to Mexico, but was expected to return soon to the Twin Cities.

"We found that Beto was taking his turn in the rotation," a former task force member on the investigation said. "They came up in teams and stayed for a few months. Everybody was expected to do their time. If you wanted the good life back in Mexico, you had to come north and take your turn."

Federal investigators say Zatarain was making so much money that even as he was sending his receipts to the cartel he was also wiring cash home to his family -- never under his name -- and was planning to buy a ranch in Mexico.

In the fall of 2004, after reviewing the DEA's emerging investigation into drug cartels, U.S. District Judge James Rosenbaum authorized the agency's request to use wiretaps in the hope of penetrating Zatarain's organization. The DEA task force soon realized it was not just pursuing a heroin case. It was on to what would become one of its most far-reaching meth probes.

By eavesdropping on Zatarain's calls, federal agents began learning his codes. When he talked about women, he was really talking about drugs. When he spoke of his "black girl," that meant he was moving black-tar heroin. Talk of "white girls" meant meth. References to the hassle of a broken window was another way of talking about "glass," slang for meth.

Heeding tips from traffickers who had come to the Twin Cities before him, Zatarain changed his cell phone every month and switched used cars about as often. He seldom moved drugs at night, reasoning that there were more police on the streets.

Once, when Zatarain's runners sensed they were being tailed -- and they were -- they simply drove off the freeway, got a hotel room along the Bloomington strip, and holed up for a few days.

On wiretapped phone lines, federal investigators say, Zatarain bragged about the vehicles he used for trafficking. They were outfitted with secret compartments that he said could get anything across the border unnoticed.

But he worried, too. Fearing detection from drug-detecting dogs that police often use on roadside stops of suspicious vehicles, Zatarain and his collaborators went so far as to put anti-freeze inside the plastic bolt that holds spare tires in the trunks of cars -- because they knew the odor sickens dogs.

After spending thousands of hours listening to wiretapped conversations and conducting surveillance all the way from Lake Street in Minneapolis to the Red River Valley, the DEA was eager to learn whether Zatarain could, on short notice, deliver a large quantity of meth.

In January 2005, a Hennepin County Sheriff's deputy, working undercover, rang Zatarain's cell phone and placed an order. It was a call the DEA hoped would lead them to Mexico -- and his drug bosses.

According to court documents, Zatarain took the undercover officer's call and promised to deliver in two hours.

Then Zatarain called one of his meth couriers in Brooklyn Park. DEA surveillance teams tailed the courier to Zatarain's new apartment at 630 Quincy Av., in northeast Minneapolis. There, other agents watched the apartment.

Close to noon, Zatarain left and drove to sell a half-pound of meth, as promised, to the undercover officer. He delivered it inside a jar of instant coffee, but he was not immediately arrested.

DEA agents soon learned Zatarain could deal almost 20 pounds of meth a month. But they heard nothing about his bosses.

By that time, as his business was peaking, Zatarain had begun breaking most of his own rules -- and his operation began to fall apart. He started working deals at night. Instead of buying a new cell every month, he would wait two.

"It became self-defeating," one investigator on the case said. "While he bought a new cell to avoid detection, he gave his old phones to his associates rather than rotating everybody's phones."

Agents simply listened in on the old phones to get Zatarain's new number.

Once, thinking he was on a secure line, he told someone not to call him Beto. Instead, he said, call him "Johnny." Agents wrote down his new street name.

T hree days after buying a half-pound of crystal meth from Zatarain, federal agents broke down his apartment door. It was dawn, and he and two other men were there sleeping. They acted bewildered, as if the agents had targeted the wrong men.

"They had their game faces on," one of the agents on the task force said. "They weren't going to concede anything."

Agents wanted Zatarain to identify his bosses in Mexico. They offered the standard deal -- less prison time if he gave them names.

They met with Zatarain three times as he sat with his federal public defender, Kevin O'Brien. Finally, Zatarain gave information to the DEA and the U.S. Attorney's office in Minneapolis about cartel operatives in Denver and Indianapolis, O'Brien said. Zatarain provided names, methods of operation, routes, and information about how the cartel recruited distributors.

And there his disclosures stopped. He would not identify the bosses who directed the operations. To do so would mean his family could be killed in retribution, Zatarain told DEA agents.

"My argument was that he was being manipulated by much bigger forces back in Mexico," O'Brien said. "He was very engaging, very bright, good-looking. He'd be successful in any business. He was a drug dealer for a reason: he was very organized, kept track of customers and he delivered. But he was just one of these kids who is used as cannon fodder."

Federal investigators say Zatarain was an example of what they call a "cell-head" -- someone who has a family relationship within the cartel's organization back in Mexico. That way, they say, the cartel has more control over keeping its far-flung operatives from cooperating with authorities.

"You could tell he wanted to talk," an investigator said, "but the last line of defense the cartel in Mexico has over them is that if you do talk, some of your family is going to end up dead. And he still has family back there in Mexico."

Zatarain, protecting his widowed mother and siblings in Tepic, stayed silent and pleaded guilty to drug-conspiracy charges.

While in jail waiting to be sent to prison for 15 years, Zatarain talked on the phone to his brother, Julio. In recorded conversations, they spoke about trying to sell encyclopedias and other books.

But it became clear to federal agents that they were trying to sell more meth. A second investigation began.

In January, a year after his arrest, Zatarain was indicted along with Julio and two others for allegedly trying to sell 500 grams of meth. He pleaded guilty last month and is scheduled to be sentenced in August. Under federal law, he could serve up to 10 more years.

Federal agents say shutting down Zatarain's operation was a big victory. But they also know the cartel for which he worked is still in business in Minnesota.

"In the DEA, we always ask ourselves if we dismantled or if we only disrupted an organization," an agent who worked on the Zatarain case said. "Did we dismantle this operation? No."

• Paul McEnroe •

©2006 Star Tribune. All rights reserved.
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