Drug cartels' reach extends to region

·7 min read

Oct. 10—International drug trafficking has an impact in the Owensboro region every year, even though the drug cartels don't have representatives here.

Cartel members aren't in Owensboro, or in the United States at all, because they don't need to be. Using connections made through gangs and distributors, and through people they lure or coerce into the business from Central America, drugs like crystal methamphetamine and fentanyl, disguised to look like prescription pills, make their way from Mexico down to local streets.

It's a huge business that rakes in large quantities of money — with the side effect of killing drug users and fueling local crime. That's not a general statement. Daviess County Jailer Art Maglinger recently said the majority of people in the jail are there for either drug charges or for drug-related crimes, such as the person who steals from cars to support a drug habit.

Last year, drug overdoses killed 93,000 people across the United States.

"It's hard to wrap your head around how big and organized this is," said David Thompson, director of the Pennyrile Narcotics Task Force, which works drug trafficking cases across several western Kentucky counties. "It's a business, and they are making billions of dollars."

For drug distributors on the regional level, there is the chance of getting caught, but "they don't mind the risk, because there's so much money to be made," Thompson said.

Sgt. Nick Wellman, supervisor of the Owensboro Police Department's Street Crimes unit, said the drug cartels work with a number of different groups to smuggle drugs across the country. "It's almost like they go to the bikers, the Crips, the Bloods, everybody," Wellman said.

"It's not like the cartels set up shop" in the U.S, Thompson said. Instead, the cartels produce crystal meth and fentanyl in Mexico and move it across the border, where associates take over the supply.

"These guys are working with gangs — motorcycle gangs, Bloods, Crips, Aryan Brotherhood" who know the local territory, Thompson said.

In short, drug trafficking works like any supply chain, with a distributor selling drugs to either smaller distributors or to dealers. Eventually, a small dealer buys some drugs to sell for a profit locally, and the drugs hit the street.

Not all drugs come from Mexico, however. While the majority of the methamphetamine and fentanyl is trafficked by drug cartels, states that have legalized marijuana grow high-quality product that also gets trafficked, Wellman said.

"I think the majority (of the marijuana) comes form the western part of the (U.S.)," Wellman said.

When asked if Owensboro was a distribution point for drugs, officials largely said that's not really the case. Drugs from Owensboro filter out to smaller communities nearby, but Owensboro isn't a drug "hub" the way places like Chicago and Atlanta are hubs. Drugs don't come to Owensboro largely to be sent somewhere else.

"We are a hub to the smaller satellite communities," said Trooper Cory King, public affairs officer to KSP in Henderson. "We get shipments brought to Owensboro from places like Indianapolis, and it will be distributed to smaller communities, like Henderson, Beaver Dam, Calhoun and Muhlenberg County."

The main drug trafficking hubs are large metro areas with a number of interstates. Several hubs are within a few hours of Owensboro, particularly Chicago, Atlanta, St. Louis and Louisville. But Owensboro does get very large quantities of drugs: In December, a multi-agency investigation led to the seizure of 151 pounds of crystal meth, three pounds of counterfeit pills containing fentanyl and 21 pounds of marijuana that were headed to Owensboro.

Drugs, especially crystal meth, come to Owensboro because there's a large market here, officials said.

"The drug of choice for western Kentucky is still methamphetamine," said Major Barry Smith, chief deputy for the Daviess County Sheriff's Department.

It seems like a distant memory now, but not so long ago, the bulk of the methamphetamine law enforcement encountered in the Owensboro area was made locally. Using chemicals like anhydrous ammonia, which they would steal from farms, and pseudoephedrine pills, cooks would make meth in labs in apartments and homes.

Those labs were exceedingly dangerous, prone to exploding and to releasing toxic chemicals. Later, people looking to make just enough meth for themselves turned to "one pots," small labs inside containers like two-liter soda bottles, that also very easily caught fire.

A number of things happened that put local cooks largely out of business. State lawmakers passed controls on pseudoephedrine purchases, and law enforcement began tracking those purchases through systems like MethCheck. Law enforcement were also aggressive in investigating meth manufacturers and charging them.

When local meth production dried up, that left a hole in the drug "market" that the cartels could fill with crystal meth from south of the border. The same thing happened when the state lawmakers moved to shut down "pill mills" prescribing a large amount of opioid-based painkillers like Oxycontin. When the pill mills were shut down, cartels began moving opioids to Kentucky.

While the voids in the market were filled, the efforts to stop local meth labs and pill mills had positive results. Daviess County Sheriff Keith Cain said those efforts were successes because they cut into the local supply of illegal drugs for a time, and because people being charged with drug possession began being eligible for substance abuse treatment.

"People say we've lost the 'War of Drugs,' " Cain said. "If you buy into that ideology, it's akin to giving up, and that's something law enforcement will never do.

"While we've lost battles, we've won many battles also," Cain said. "We haven't lost, we're still engaged in fighting that war."

Locally, people become involved with drug trafficking through who they know, Wellman said. That makes attempts to work up the chain difficult, because people are reluctant to inform on their friends.

"It goes back to loyalty," Wellman said. "They aren't going to snitch on their friends (or) family."

Thompson, who is a former member of the OPD command staff and former Ohio County Sheriff, disagreed, and said drug dealers will talk when they're arrested.

"I can honestly say there's a small percentage of loyal criminals," Thompson said. "Most people are going to be concerned about going to prison .... They are not going to give two cents about who they are getting their drugs from.

"Most people are going to try to help themselves out of their situation."

A drug cartel won't engage in large-scale violence against witnesses in the U.S. because the laws against retaliating against witnesses is stronger here, and law enforcement isn't for sale, Thompson said.

"In Mexico, (cartel members) will kill you, because law enforcement can be bribed and bought," Thompson said. Also, violence attracts attention, which is the last thing serious drug dealers want.

Earlier this year, Daviess County was designated a High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, a federal designation that will provide more resources to law enforcement agencies working drug cases. Being a HIDTA county means the county has its own drug trafficking task force and will receive support, such as advanced intelligence sharing among agencies and funding for investigations.

Cain, who has served as a member of a National Sheriff's Association committee that has studied substance abuse, said law enforcement alone cannot solve the drug trafficking problem.

"One of the primary things we have to address is the appetite for people to use these drugs," Cain said.

For example, Cain said 40 states share their prescription drug monitoring programs, meaning physicians can see a patient's history of prescriptions, which could help identify people who need substance abuse treatment.

"Not only are doctors and other providers presented with a patient's full prescription history, the latest technology allows medical staff to locate treatment beds for those in need in real time," Cain said.

With that technology, a person needing treatment can be identified and found a place in a program while they are still in an emergency room, Cain said.

"We are very concerned bout the source" of illegal drugs, Cain said. "But equally so, if not more so, we have to address the consumption issue on this side of the border."

Law enforcement is an important part of curbing substance abuse, but rehabilitation, education about the dangers of drug use and prevention are needed as well, Cain said.

"I'm a firm believer the issue is not a law enforcement problem, it's a community problem," Cain said.

James Mayse, 270-691-7303, jmayse@messenger-inquirer.com, Twitter: @JamesMayse

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