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Calif. farm region is a meth network center, US says

‘Super labs’ run by drug cartels are hard to find

THE LOPEZ FAMILY/THE FRESNO (CALIF.) BEE

Eduardo Lopez (above) and his son, Isaiah Echeverria, were shot, allegedly by Aide Mendez, before she killed herself in their Fresno, Calif., home.

FRESNO, Calif. - When a 23-year-old Fresno woman fatally shot her two toddlers and a cousin, critically wounded her husband, then turned the gun on herself last Sunday, investigators immediately suspected methamphetamine abuse in what otherwise was inexplicable carnage. It turned out the mother had videotaped herself smoking meth hours before the shooting.

“When you get this type of tragedy, it’s not a surprise that drugs were involved,’’ said Lieutenant Mark Salazar, the Fresno Police Department’s homicide commander. “Meth has been a factor in other violent crimes.’’

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A Bakersfield mother was sentenced Tuesday for stabbing her newborn while in a meth rage. An Oklahoma woman drowned her baby in a washing machine in November. A New Mexico woman claiming to be God stabbed her son with a screwdriver last month, saying, “God wants him dead.’’

“Once people who are on meth become psychotic, they are very dangerous,’’ said Dr. Alex Stalcup, who works with addicts in the San Francisco Bay Area suburbs. “They’re completely bonkers; they’re nuts. We’re talking about very extreme alterations of normal brain function. Once someone becomes triggered to violence, there aren’t any limits or boundaries.’’

The Central Valley of California is a hub of the nation’s meth distribution network, making extremely pure forms of the drug easily available locally. And law enforcement officials say widespread meth abuse is believed to be driving much of the crime in the vast farming region.

Chronic use of the harsh chemical compound can lead to psychosis, including hearing voices and experiencing hallucinations. The stimulant effect of meth is up to 50 times longer than cocaine, experts say, so users stay awake for days on end, impairing cognitive function and contributing to extreme paranoia.

“Your children and your spouse become your worst enemy, and you truly believe they are after you,’’ said Bob Pennal, a recently retired meth investigator from the California Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement.

Meth originally took root in California’s agricultural heartland in the late 1980s and early 1990s as a poor man’s cocaine. Its use initially creates feelings of euphoria and invincibility, but experts say repeated abuse can alter brain chemistry and cause schizophrenia-like behavior.

Meth’s availability and its potential for abuse combine to create the biggest drug threat in the Central Valley, according to a new report from the US Department of Justice’s Drug Intelligence Center. From 2009 to 2010 meth busts in the Central Valley more than tripled to 1,094 kilograms, or more than 2,400 pounds, the report says.

Large tracts of farmland with isolated outbuildings are an ideal place to avoid detection, which is why the region is home to nearly all of the nation’s “super labs,’’ controlled by Mexican drug-trafficking organizations, said John Donnelly, agent in charge of the US Drug Enforcement Administration office in Fresno.

“They have the potential to make 150 pounds per [each] cook,’’ he said. “There are more super labs in California than anywhere else. Every week another office calls us - St. Paul, Dayton, Kansas, Texas - and says, ‘We’ve got a meth case here’ and they say the suspects are from Turlock or Visalia. We’re slinging it all over the country from here.’’

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