An old drug is making new inroads in South Florida and it’s far more potent and dangerous than in the past.
Crystal meth — a chemical high popular in the early 2000s, particularly on the gay party scene — is staging a comeback. In the last couple of years, it has racked up more overdose victims, created a new wave of addicts and spurred bigger police probes into trafficking of the highly addictive drug.
And much of what’s being sold is no longer low-grade methamphetamine home-cooked in some ramshackle Florida trailer park.
Instead, the meth being seized in South Florida is high-grade crystal concocted in “super labs” south of the United States border, then smuggled in as part of Mexican cartels’ efforts to expand into East Coast markets, according to law enforcement authorities.
So far in 2017, Miami-Dade’s crime lab has identified 267 cases of crystal-meth seizures by local cops — more than triple the number of cases five years ago. The purity is consistently near 100 percent.
“With the much stronger meth, there is a higher rate of psychosis and overdoses,” said David Fawcett, a South Florida therapist who works with gay men, one of the groups most affected by the rise of the stimulant drug. “People are getting addicted sooner.”
Even before the drug waned, South Florida was never a huge market for meth. Cocaine remains the king of illegal highs in South Florida. And in recent years, opioids such as fentanyl and heroin have climbed the ranks to become a national scourge. Opioid overdoses have killed hundreds in South Florida alone over the last few years.
Sometimes called “crank,” “speed,” “ice” or “tina,” meth has thrived in the underworld markets of Western and Midwestern states. The acclaimed TV drama Breaking Bad chronicled the world of fictional meth dealers in New Mexico. Rural areas of central and northern Florida have also dealt with small-time meth production and addictions.
The country’s clandestine meth labs peaked over a decade ago and began waning as authorities cracked down on chemicals used to make the drug, including limiting sales of over-the-counter cold medications that contain pseudoephedrine, a key ingredient.
The cartels filled the void, producing meth — a bitter-tasting white powder fashioned into pills or shiny rock-like “crystals” — in large secret labs while pushing the product across the Southwest border.
“Now, Mexicans are producing more meth than they ever have. It’s the highest level of production,” said Justin Miller, intelligence manager for South Florida’s Drug Enforcement Administration field office. “They’re producing high purity, very cheap methamphetamine.”
Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) agents saw it firsthand when they opened up a probe into a trio of men trafficking meth earlier this year in Hialeah and North Miami-Dade.
The chief supplier: Eduardo Benito Gonzalez, of North Miami, sold a cooperating informant 27.86 grams for only $450. The drugs “tested positive for 98 percent pure methamphetamine,” according to a criminal complaint by HSI agent Rimas Sliazas.
After a series of similar buys, agents busted Gonzalez, 58, who last week pleaded guilty and faces up to life in prison when he is sentenced in March. How Gonzalez — who once served six years in Florida prison for trafficking in cocaine — got his supply of meth remains under investigation.
Some of South Florida’s meth arrives through the U.S. mail, not unlike how synthetic club drugs such as “Molly” now come in via clandestine labs in China. That’s how Shawn Martinez, a former doorman at the Lincoln Road gay club Score, got his meth, according to Miami Beach police.
One year ago, detectives raided Martinez’s South Beach apartment after a series of undercover buys with one of his dealers. He confessed that he and another man, Angelo Rodriguez, spent $1,200 to buy a “large package” of meth through the mail.
Martinez, 38, is awaiting trial on trafficking charges along with three others, all of them regulars on the Miami Beach gay party scene.
“It’s a very customer-rich environment, with all the different venues, events and parties for people to enjoy themselves,” said Miami Beach Capt. Daniel Morgalo, who supervises the street-crimes investigations unit that has seen an uptick in meth cases. “Crystal meth will take the average party experience and magnify it tenfold.”
Most of the meth, however, is believed to be delivered by drug dealers themselves driving from the U.S. West Coast. Authorities have had some successes identifying the pipeline of meth from the western United States into South Florida.
Earlier this month, a federal judge sentenced Miami’s Jose Pablo Ortiz-Santizo to just over 12 years in prison after he repeatedly sold nearly 100 percent pure meth to a confidential source. At trial, jurors heard that Ortiz-Santizo “transported significant quantities of crystal methamphetamine from Southern California to South Florida for further distribution,” according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
And his source: a Los Angeles man who partnered with Ortiz-Santizo. That man, Ulysses Guevara-Ocana, 31, a Mexican American who prosecutors say would travel south of the border, was also prosecuted in Miami and was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison.
The Mexican meth on the streets has had predictable effects on addicts.
Last year, meth was discovered in the bodies of 621 people who died across Florida, double the previous year. In Miami-Dade, overdose deaths also have more than doubled in the past five years, although the overall numbers are still miniscule compared to other drugs — and the meth is almost always mixed with other drugs such as fentanyl, heroin or cocaine.
Among the dead in Miami-Dade this year: Johnathan Perez, 26, a waiter who had just moved from Tampa and was found with a needle in his arm in his Little Havana apartment; Manuel Vecino, 29, a Coral Gables nurse found over a slew of drugs in his car; and Eugene Webster, 46, a chronic drug user found banging his head on the ground before dying in a local hospital.
The drug floods the brain with stimulating, feel-good dopamines — users can stay awake for days, their body temperatures elevated, sometimes with episodes of paranoia and bizarre behavior.
And the letdown is harsh. Addicts report deep bouts of depression. Among gay male users who engage in marathon bouts of “chem sex,” recovery is complicated because the brain has become accustomed to meth-fueled trysts. Even visual cues — like seeing the screen of a social media app used for meeting other men — can trigger relapses, said Fawcett, the therapist.
“People have no sex drive. When they do get it back, they immediately get drug cravings,” said Fawcett, author of the book Lust, Men, and Meth: A Gay Man’s Guide to Sex and Recovery.
One 51-year-old South Beach man, who has been clean for over a year but has struggled with repeated relapses for over a decade, said meth “really rewires you.”
“It’s hard to adjust to life without it,” said the man, who did not want his name used, in an interview. “And it’s so much more accessible with apps and everything like that — I’ve been managing to avoid a lot of that. I’m not off the apps completely, but I try to manage them better.”
The uptick in meth may also be leading to more cases of HIV in a region already leading the country in new infections. The problem has gotten bad enough that Pride Center at Equality Park, a Wilton Manors support organization for the LGBTQ community, is hosting a public town-hall-style workshop in February to discuss the epidemic and HIV.
“We have several crystal meth support groups that meet at the center and we noticed the groups were getting larger,” said the center’s executive director, Robert Boo. “More and more people are actually wasting away in front of us. Our goal is to bring the conversation to the forefront, to really raise awareness and talk about the impact of the addiction and how it has taken over people’s lives.”
Meth deaths rise
The toll in Miami-Dade County:
▪ 2012: 2
▪ 2013: 3
▪ 2014: 7
▪ 2015: 6
▪ 2016: 13
▪ 2017 year to date: 13 (Toxicology tests usually take months, which means full results won’t be ready until next year and that this number will likely rise).
Meth seizures up
Statistics show an increase in positive samples submitted by police to South Florida crime labs.
▪ 2014: 108 cases
▪ 2015: 115 cases
▪ 2016: 156 cases
▪ 2017 (YTD): 267 cases
▪ 2014: 148 cases
▪ 2015: 128 cases
▪ 2016: 290 cases
▪ 2017 (YTD): 206 cases
Sources: Miami-Dade Police and medical examiner’s office and Broward Sheriff’s Office.