Drug smuggling into the United States from Mexico remains a problem, but the types of drugs that now are being heavily abused are shifting from methamphetamine to heroin and prescription drugs, according to a federal drug enforcement agent.
Doug Coleman, assistant special agent in charge with the Drug Enforcement Agency, spoke before a crowd of about 100 people gathered for the Northeast Valley Coalition Against Methamphetamine's monthly meeting at the Granite Reef Senior Center in south Scottsdale on Thursday.
Coleman, a former Las Vegas police officer, has been a special agent with the DEA since 1990. He is in charge of DEA enforcement groups in Phoenix that investigate dangerous drug operations and infiltrate drug cartels.
He was quick to say that methamphetamine labs have shifted from the U.S. to south of the border and that prescription drug abuse is emerging.
In the last year, there has been a 200 percent increase in heroin trafficking arrests, mostly resulting from the drug being manufactured in Mexico and smuggled into Arizona, Coleman said. There also has been an increase in the abuse of salvia, an unregulated hallucinogenic drug used by teens that can be purchased at smoke shops and herbal stores, Coleman said.
Prescription drugs such as OxyContin and Percocet are readily available in the medicine cabinets of many homes, Coleman said.
"Our prescription drug abuse numbers are going through the roof," Coleman said. "Lock up your legal drugs."
Drug traffickers from south of the border also bring their crime culture with them into the U.S., which has led to an increase in home invasions and kidnappings throughout the Valley, Coleman said.
In the case of a kidnapping, someone in the victim's family usually owes one of the drug cartels money, and when there's a home invasion, the perpetrators often believe they are targeting a "stash house" to steal drugs, Coleman said.
Coleman said the DEA's Phoenix field office has a 95 percent conviction rate for drug investigations, which take anywhere from three to four months for an individual and at least one year for a major drug ring after an arrest.
"We can't declare victory against any crime, but the northeast Valley is in pretty good shape in the big scheme of things," Coleman said. "The dangers and problems of clandestine meth labs in Phoenix are less, but Mexico is picking up the slack of manufacturing the drugs and transporting them to the U.S. through Arizona.
"It used to be a rarity when the people trafficking the drugs were armed, but now, it's rare when they aren't."
Coleman said there has also been an increase in guns being sold at local gun shows here and smuggled into Mexico for use by drug cartels.