Remarks as Delivered
Thank you, Cheri. Good morning everyone and thank you all for coming today.
I am here to discuss, this morning, a serious challenge facing law enforcement throughout the country and the DEA’s operation that has been mounted to meet that challenge, and to discuss some of the preliminary results. It relates to drug trafficking, methamphetamine, and the associated violent crime.
I’ve always said that the first duty of government is to protect the public safety and that is obviously the department’s top priority. State and local law enforcement has the primary responsibility — they’re really at the front line of protecting the public’s peace and safety – but the federal government has joined forces with state and local law enforcement to fight violent crime. Since the 1990’s, we have leaned forward — the federal government has leaned forward — and used our tools that we have, especially that in the areas of gun violence, organized crime, including gangs and drugs, and drug trafficking, to go after violent criminals, in conjunction with our state and local partners, who work with us on joint task forces in various cities and rural areas. Over the last three years, I am happy to say that violent crime in this country has been steadily going down, largely because of the efforts of our joint taskforces.
This year, however, while that pattern still holds in much of the country, we have started to see an uptake in crime in many areas, and many of our large cities especially. This became very pronounced in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis and the subsequent demonization of police and the “defund the police” movement. Our response has been, the Department of Justice’s response, has been Operation Legend, where we have taken substantial additional federal resources — over a thousand agents and tens of millions of dollars — to augment our task forces in nine targeted cities. I was in Chicago yesterday to announce the early results of project Legend, which we are very pleased with. The cities have come in on a very staggered basis, but just in the last — since we started it on July 22nd – we’ve had 2,500 arrests and crime has dropped markedly in all of the legend cities.
But today I want to talk about another serious challenge to public safety, one that is closely associated with violence, and that is the surging of trafficking in methamphetamine. Now we’ve all heard about the opioid crisis and that certainly has been, and remains, a crisis for our country. We’ve heard about all of the overdoses. Now, for the first three years of this administration, we had been able to, initially, flatten the curve, and then even reduce opioid overdoses, and most of this has come by substantial progress in the abuse of prescription drugs, lawful prescription drugs. But unfortunately, this year, and this is perhaps associated with COVID in some way, we’ve seen an increase in opioid overdoses. Some of this has been fueled, if not most of it, by a shift to synthetic opioids, principally fentanyl, which is a very deadly drug. Nevertheless, and that remains a challenge for us to go after that fentanyl, which, many of you may know, the precursors largely come from China, go into Mexico, and Mexico manufactures it and sends it – the cartels – send it up into the United States.
But, when I took office in February of 2019, I quickly saw that, while the opioid crisis was in fact something we had to tackle hard, in many parts of the country, the primary danger was methamphetamine. Some states have a very low opioid problem and a very high methamphetamine problem and we started trying to deal more aggressively with the growing problem of methamphetamine. Meth is a very dangerous and deadly drug that ravages the body. I think we’ve all seen the before-and-after shots: teeth fall out; scabs on the face that the addicted person picks at; they look like walking zombies. It destroys the health of the addicted person and it severely alters the mind. It is destroying the ability of people to control their impulses. It propels anger, rage, and aggression. It leads, frequently, to violence. Study after study show that it closely correlates to violence and is involved in a lot of domestic violence, as well as homicides. Unlike opioids, we don’t have something to counteract it, therapeutically. There is no Narcan for methamphetamine.
Now the violence arises in two principal ways. One is the users themselves, frequently out of control, attacking police. We’ve had unfortunate instance here in Arizona — a police officer killed by someone on methamphetamine. It also arises from the groups that are involved in its’ distribution in the United States. Frequently the lowest level of distribution are the street gangs in major cities. Now, previously, methamphetamine was largely made in the United States. It was cooked domestically, on a small scale. Now it is manufactured on an industrial scale by the two major cartels in Mexico: Sinoloa and CJNG. It comes across the border via a distribution network where it goes initially to multiple large cities in the United States, fewer than 12, and from there, it’s broken down and distributed throughout the country. It’s now moved into states and areas and communities where we haven’t seen it before. So, it’s largely becoming, and has become really, a national problem, and it’s devastating communities. The Mexican meth is very pure and potent compared to the previous production from the United States, and it’s extremely cheap, which has allowed it to take hold.
Now, in addition to violence, we are seeing an increase in meth overdoses. In 2018, there were approximately 12,000 overdoses with psychostimulants, like methamphetamine. In 2019, it went up to 16,000, a 25 percent increase, and we are likely to see a significant increase this year. Arizona has seen a 17 percent increase in methamphetamine overdoses, with over 2,000 deaths in 2019.
DOJ is responding with a two-prong approach. The ultimate solution, or the core solution, to methamphetamine and most of our drug problems, ultimately lies in Mexico. Almost all the illicit drugs come up from Mexico and are controlled by these two dominant cartels, which are really states within a state. They act with impunity, or have acted with impunity. And until we can deal decisively with the situation in Mexico, we’re not going to see an end to the drug problem. Progress has been made with Mexico. We had some very promising discussions with the new AMLO Administration down there, President AMLO. I made two trips down there in December and January of 2019, 2020. And although we had not gotten any extraditions of drug kingpins and drug cartels members under that new administration, after those visits, we’ve had over 60 extraditions. And we have also continued to work jointly with the Mexicans to apprehend additional cartel leaders for extradition to the United States. And we’ve also started increasing our coordinated operations against the cartels and had a fairly robust plan to work with the Mexicans destroying meth labs. Unfortunately, COVID has intervened and has tempered a lot of the progress that we had been making — reduced our momentum. But we are confident as COVID abates, we are going to get back on track with Mexico and have a much stronger operation down there.
But I said we had two prongs. While we are not taking our eye off the ball in Mexico, in February of 2019, DEA launched Crystal Shield, which is an operation to target the transportation and distribution network here in the United States. Like a lot of our other law enforcement activities, it was effected adversely by COVID and a number of constraints were imposed on these practical restraints. Nonetheless, the operation has been yielding very impressive results, which we expect to accelerate in the months ahead.
I’ll just add parenthetically, that one of the things that has effected law enforcement across the board, but we are certainly seeing it in a very pronounced way in our efforts against drug cartels, is the increasing use of encryption on communication. The use of apps like WhatsApp and Signal and others, which are increasingly used by criminal groups, especially the cartels. Whereas, in the past, communications intelligence were central to investigations, we are now finding that largely cutoff by the use of this encryption. We’ve had to develop — and the DEA has been developing — best possible response to that to keep up our strong law enforcement effort against the cartels.
With Crystal Shield, nationwide so far, there have been 1,800 arrests, 28,500 pounds of meth seized, that’s the equivalent of 65 million doses, and $43 million seized. Here in Arizona, there have been 3,900 pounds of methamphetamine seized, which is 8.8 million doses. Now, it’s important to understand that the results of Crystal Shield are over and above, and augment, what I call the “baseline enforcement effort” that’s directed against methamphetamine by the DEA. So, for example, in 2019, the overall effort against methamphetamine by the DEA had resulted in 100,000 pounds of methamphetamine seized and 11,000 defendants charged. What’s different about Crystal Shield is that it is over and above that, and is also targeting, specifically, the large hubs — city hubs — that are the core of the distribution in the United States. It’s designed to seize it and dismantle the organizations that are involved in its’ distribution before it gets into packages and is distributed.
So in sum, the trafficking of methamphetamine poses a major danger to our communities and the federal government is determined to disrupt, dismantle, and destroy the violent drug trafficking organizations that place profits over human lives. We are fortunate to work alongside, here is Arizona and elsewhere, state and local partners that share our commitment to this important mission. Together, we are going to continue to work to enforce the law and make our communities safer for all.