Pubdate: Sun, 26 Nov 2000
Source: Omaha World-Herald (NE)
Copyright: 2000 Omaha World-Herald Company.
Author: Dave Morantz


Hastings, Neb. - Small methamphetamine labs in houses and apartments may 
get most of the attention. But they produce only a trickle of the meth in 
Nebraska, law enforcement agents say.

Most of the drug - 90 percent, according to one investigator - comes from 
Mexico and is distributed through immigrant communities around the state's 
meatpacking plants.

Law enforcement officials say that only a few immigrants distribute the 
drug. But these dealers have been able to blend into Nebraska's growing 
Hispanic population, particularly around the state's rural meatpacking 
plants, officials say. According to U.S. Census Bureau statistics, the 
number of Hispanics living in Nebraska swelled 108 percent in 1990s to 
about 77,000.

"Not every Hispanic that's here is a bad person," said Glenn Kemp, a 
federal drug investigator who works in Grand Island, Hastings and Kearney. 
"But every time we work something with supply routes, it comes back to 
Mexican nationals."

Meatpacking industry spokespeople say that meth is no more prevalent in 
their industry than in others and that they do not tolerate drug use in the 
workplace. Nebraska Crime Commission statistics do not list the number of 
Hispanics arrested.

But many law enforcement agents say criminals in Mexican distribution rings 
who would have stuck out in rural Nebraska 10 years ago now go unnoticed in 
Hispanic population centers. Meth distribution has become especially 
prevalent around Grand Island and South Sioux City, officials say.

"The packing-plant industry has really enhanced the opportunity for the 
criminal Mexican nationals to infiltrate peaceful, law-abiding Mexican 
communities," said Nancy Martinez, coordinator of the Midwest High 
Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, a federally funded effort formed in 1996 
specifically to combat meth.

Mexicans are not the first to profit from importing drugs to the Midlands. 
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, authorities blamed urban gangs with ties 
to California for spreading crack cocaine. Although the crack epidemic was 
focused mainly in Omaha, there are similarities with today's meth problems.

In Hastings, Kemp opens a lockbox stuffed full of meth - white, brown, 
pink, tan. Some is in big bags, some in tiny jewelry bags. Drug 
investigators track the drug's source by color, shape and ingredients. Kemp 
said Mexican meth, which makes up about 90 percent of Nebraska's supply, is 
commonly made with red phosphorus. In addition, he said, certain 
ingredients used to make meth come from Mexico, where there is little 
regulatory oversight.

Small local labs, which agents often call "Beavis and Butt-Head labs" after 
the popular animated television show, struggle to make enough meth to sell 
widely, Kemp said.

Recent high-profile meth busts, such as a cold medicine pipeline that the 
Drug Enforcement Administration said supplied rings run by Mexican 
nationals in the United States, support law enforcement assertions.

In June, Midlands law enforcement agents testified at a congressional 
hearing in Sioux City, Iowa, that Mexican gangs send meth to Iowa, Nebraska 
and South Dakota through California. As much as 85 percent of Iowa's meth 
comes from outside the state, one official said at the hearing. Sioux 
City's police chief said undocumented workers account for about 60 percent 
of his meth arrests.

Others disagree. Yolanda Chavez Nuncio, a member and a former chairwoman of 
Nebraska's Mexican-American Commission, doubts the majority of Nebraska's 
meth comes from her community.

"I think the initial reaction when there are packing plants might be that 
there's a lot of meth," the Grand Island resident said. "But many of the 
people coming to work in the packing plants are families, as opposed to 15 
years ago when we were seeing lots of single men. It's not as much a 
problem among families."

Nuncio does not question that meth is in rural Nebraska's Hispanic 
communities. But she said it's unfair to single out undocumented workers.

"It is not acceptable in our community to use, buy and sell drugs any more 
than it is in the Anglo community," she said.

Kemp said cultural differences present one of the biggest challenges in 
combating meth - how to infiltrate Mexican distribution rings with a mostly 
white corps of officers, deputies and troopers. Of the Nebraska State 
Patrol's 460 troopers, for example, only eight are Hispanic.

"The Hispanic culture is so much different from ours. They just don't talk 
about other people who are involved," Kemp said.

Investigators, he said, have little trouble cracking the lower levels of 
the Mexican meth trade.

"Probably even in this shirt," he said pulling at his Nebraska Law 
Enforcement Intelligence Network logo, "we could walk into a bar in Grand 
Island and purchase without any problem. Even if we're the only white 
people in there, in a Mexican bar."

High-level Hispanic agents are another thing, and investigators consider 
them as "good as gold."

That's why supervisor Tom DeRouchey and five special Immigration and 
Naturalization Service agents have a Grand Island office. That office and 
one in North Platte help drug investigators interrogate suspects and 
provide the agents with INS deportation records. The penalty for returning 
to the United States after deportation is often more than for drug 
offenses, he said.
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MAP posted-by: Larry Stevens