A massive California police raid reveals how white supremacists are making a bid to control methamphetamine distribution.
LANCASTER, Calif. -- An 18-month joint operation by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and the federal Drug Enforcement Agency has broken up a multimillion-dollar methamphetamine trafficking ring — a loosely organized operation whose leaders are linked to white supremacist gangs.
Code-named "Silent Thunder," the covert operation culminated Aug. 22 in pre-dawn raids on 23 houses and businesses in the high-desert city of Lancaster, where police reported seizing $500,000 in cash, over $2 million worth of processed methamphetamine and 175 firearms. Many of the guns seized were assault rifles, some of them fully automatic machine guns.
Officers said silencers, hand grenades, the makings of pipe bombs and instructions on building pipe bombs were found along with Nazi emblems, photos, flags and literature.
"It appears that most of the higher-ups in the organizations follow some sort of white supremacist ideology," said Sheriff's Detective Lt. Ron Shreves, commander of the operation. "We found Nazi flags, swastikas, pins, belt buckles and racist literature at many of the locations raided."
In the months leading up to the August raids, 270 people described as lower-level functionaries in the meth-trafficking operations were arrested. Police said 200 of those rolled up already had prison records, and one third were members of three white supremacist gangs — the Peckerwoods, Supreme White Power and the Nazi Low Riders.
The operation was directed at the leaders of a meth-trafficking enterprise that police said was made up of a loosely knit organization of six "cells," which supplied each other with the chemicals to produce methamphetamine for distribution in Idaho, Colorado, Texas and New York.
"Getting the street vendors of the drug is easy," Shreves said. "But this operation was designed to get the people at the top. ... We were able to take down the people who thought they were so well-insulated that they couldn't be reached."
Police used extensive surveillance by wiretap, hidden cameras and long-term stakeouts staged from three "safe houses" rather than the Lancaster Sheriff's station to maintain secrecy. Shreves said many of the people targeted in the operation maintained sophisticated counter-surveillance equipment.
"We encountered them watching us watch them," he said. "They're pretty good at it. Some places we hit had video cameras set up, with alarm systems hooked up to video cameras that taped anybody within camera range."
On the day of the raid and during the following week, police arrested another 23 people, for a total of 293. Among them were several local businessmen, including the proprietors of a motorcycle customizing shop, a machine shop and a glass shop.
Because production of methamphetamine involves a variety of toxic chemicals, machine shops and metal and glass-working businesses that use such chemicals are often involved as fronts for drug-making and distribution.
Drug experts say meth was illegally produced and sold by outlaw motorcycle gangs until the late 1980s, when the business was largely taken over by Mexican drug families running large "super-labs."
The Lancaster operation, Sheriff's Det. Craig Peterson says, shows that race-based organizations are trying to take control of the local market.
"Especially in the high desert," Peterson said, "you're seeing more and more of the effort by white supremacist gangs to make money from methamphetamine trafficking to support their 'just causes'."
Though police found no links between those arrested and local hate crimes, their organizations have a history of violence. In 1999, for instance, two members of the Nazi Low Riders were convicted of murder in the beating death of a black homeless man.
Peterson said that the 16 labs shut down in the investigation were not found in the run-down dwellings often associated with meth. "Some of the homes in this case were beautiful homes, with well-tended grounds," he said. "Just your average next-door neighbor, that you wouldn't think would be involved in meth trafficking or white supremacy."
"Most of the people in this operation were career criminals," said Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca. "This has put a severe dent in these individuals' ability to peddle methamphetamine to our community residents."
David S. Barry, a veteran criminal justice reporter, was awarded a national journalism prize recently for his work covering methamphetamine production.