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It might safely be said that the damage inflicted by the coronavirus pandemic might take decades to be accurately assessed. Aside from the millions of lives lost, billions in dollars, euros, francs, pounds, etc., it caused inestimable damage to the infrastructure of nations across the world. It dramatically changed the lifestyle for us, the survivors not killed outright in its wake. It is not surprising then, that this scourge has left its mark on those outside the spectrum of “acceptable” society and appropriate behavior as well.

COVID-19 forced everyone, even the most extroverted, inside. Forced isolation and extended periods of confinement, something most of us have experienced, elicit feelings of claustrophobia, depression, paranoia, restlessness, and so on, a malady known as “cabin fever.“ The condition of being cooped up means an escalation of domestic violence and spousal abuse, and prompted the search for alternative, less-than-ideal methods to cope.

Coupled with the recent adaptation of physical distancing (to decrease the possibility of airborne infection) covid has further isolated mankind. We are by nature social animals, but the pandemic has made home and hearth an especially hospitable incubator of substance abuse as a method of coping.

In due course, narcotic overdoses have spiked nationwide, according to Atlanta’s Centers for Disease Control.

“2020 was the worst year on record for drug overdose deaths in the United States with over 90,000 losing their lives,” says Bill Bodner of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. “I think a significant factor in that was the pandemic and the social and economic stresses many of us had to endure.”

Meanwhile, the supply of intoxicants these home grown isolationists used to escape their forced confinement began to dry up.

Bad business for the bad guys

As the coronavirus manifested itself across the globe, governmental security units tightened at border crossings to stem the flow of this marauding virus. This, in turn constricted the movement of legitimate commerce and the drug trade, which traditionally uses these lawful businesses to camouflage the transfer of its corrupt cargo.

In a given day, 100,000 people cross the San Diego-Tijuana border (officially the San Ysidro Port of Entry) for such lawfully mundane occurrences as shopping, work, and so on. This does not include illegal trespassing (along with the migrant camp set up for asylum seekers), but for the sake of argument, much of illicit smuggling transpires via these innocuous transnational visits.

To bypass the considerable presence of U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, a long standing “cat and mouse” game has gone on between law enforcement and foreign entities seeking to quench the Yankee aptitude for prohibited intoxicants. The emergence of COVID-19 and the attendant “beefing up” of security to counter it only made the process of transporting contraband more difficult.

L.A. as the new Miami

“Approximately 1,000 law enforcement officials this morning fanned out across the Fashion District in downtown Los Angeles to execute dozens of search warrants and arrest warrants linked to businesses suspected of using ‘Black Market Peso Exchange’ schemes to launder narcotics proceeds for international drug cartels.”

“…the indictment alleges that the Sinaloa Drug Cartel ordered the kidnapping of the victim after authorities in the United States seized more than 100 kilograms of cocaine that he was responsible for distributing.”

—from a 2014 Department

of Justice press release

Many Angelanos know Downtown’s Fashion (or Garment) District as a open-air marketplace to pick up boutique clothing at bargain prices. For the uninitiated however, this destination has long served another, more ominous purpose.

Back in 2014, Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel had a problem. An accomplice was responsible for the seizure of a shipment of cocaine by U.S. authorities, and to make good on the lost revenue, the culprit was abducted and held at a ranch near Culiacan, Sinaloa while the cartel pressured his family to pay a ransom for their relative’s return. Since they didn’t want to attract attention, they arranged (using the family’s money) to purchase clothing from several shops in the Fashion District. They then shipped the legitimate goods down to Mexico (where they were in high demand) and sold them for the $140,000 needed for the ransom.

In this caper, the scheme was uncovered by a joint task force of DEA, IRS, FBI and assorted agencies, as $65 million was confiscated globally in related investigations. The kidnapped victim (who’d been beaten, shot, electrocuted and waterboarded) was then released and brought back to face the (comparatively more humane) justice of the U.S. legal system.

The methodology illustrated here has been implemented for years. Dubbed the “Black Market Peso Exchange” (BMPE), the deception is known to opponents on the “right side” of the law.

In theory (and by law), banks and “legitimate” financial institutions are supposed to ensure they aren’t accepting dirty money, but the entities they are mandated to steer clear of nonetheless manage to figure out ways to create economic growth —perhaps best illustrated by the flood of capital into Miami real estate during the “Cocaine Cowboy” era of the 1980s, made (in) famous by the media portrayals of “Bad Boys,” “Miami Vice,” and “Scarface.”

Power Transitions

Now the “top nark” in the Los Angeles office, Special Agent in Charge Bodner began his career in 1990, in time to see the power transition from Colombian drug lords who dominated the late 20th century to the Mexican cartels at the pinnacle today. As the millennium ended, Colombian power brokers utilized Mexicans as ”mules” to transport cocaine into the United States. They generally gave these “employees” one kilogram for every kilo they moved, and this generous exchange enabled the newcomers to become shot callers themselves by 2005.

Since then, the power dynamic has shifted between criminal organs of Mexican origin, notably the media darling “El Chapo” Guzmán. Legal and illegal businesses share many commonalities, including the maximization of profits along with minimizing the cost (and energy) of producing them. With El Chapo’s incarceration, the semi-militarized CJNG Jalisco New Generation Cartel dominant cartel has taken his place. At its helm is Nemesio Oseguera Cervantes, who has a bounty of $10,000,000 on his head (https://www.dea.gov/fugitives/nemesio-oseguera-cervantes).

As they moved up the hierarchy, the Mexicans still needed to head south to transport the leaves that make cocaine (coca is generally cultivated in South America), but the newly minted moguls found a reprieve in the form of newly developed synthetic drugs.

These freshly conceived concoctions appeared in various and sundry iterations, including various forms of cannabinoids, and ecstasy, but most importantly fentanyl and methamphetamine.

“Here in Los Angeles County, we were hit especially hard,” notes Bodner. “Drug- caused deaths were up 65 percent in Los Angeles while deaths involving fentanyl were up 250 percent.”

These man-made alternatives eliminated the need to loiter in South America. “We have seen the unprecedented proliferation of methamphetamine and fentanyl in the greater Los Angeles area in the past year,” Bodner said.

Today, Bodner states that “hypes,” or habitual substance abusers here in Los Angeles County are most likely to get high off these two synthetic substances.

More specifically, he points to “…methamphetamine in the form of powder and fentanyl in the form of counterfeit Oxycodone pills.”

(Too much) Money Problems

As a virus, the coronavirus’s nature is to change, or mutate in order to survive, which is why it’s variant, COVID-19 made its appearance a short time ago. So too, society changes, along with the criminal apparatus that feeds on it. With the introduction of the pandemic and the tightening of restrictions that came with it, reality began to imitate art. Like the anti-hero of acclaimed television series “Breaking Bad,” Walter White, who came to a point where he had too much money, and no place to (safely) put it, hundreds of millions in cash began to lie stagnant in downtown LA, as the cartels were afraid to move it without being discovered.

Bodner confirms this, as cash seizures began to skyrocket along the border.

To remedy this, the Mexicans reached out to trans-pacific alliances forged years ago: the Chinese.

Chinese merchants have also had a presence in the local garment district. In a variant of their tried-and-sure business practices, both parties utilize banks in mainland China (bypassing the communist government) to make transactions across the ocean in a triangular maneuver.

As the cat and mouse game continues, government officials are aware of these developments. Being able to prove them is another matter. Meanwhile, with the American withdrawal from Afghanistan, one of the most fertile regions for opium cultivation, the international stage will continue it’s complicated progression.