The Mexican Connection (cont.)
The Internet has fueled the growth of the steroid business, enabling anyone, including kids, to order the drugs from home. The web also gives dealers a new tool for recruiting customers. According to Doug Coleman, a DEA supervisory special agent with expertise in steroid cases, some dealers "troll the Internet like pedophiles. They stake out bodybuilding chat rooms and discussion boards used by kids looking to get stronger."
Facing the proliferation of these illegal drugs, the U.S. government has finally begun to address the problem, not merely through public-service ads, or the high-profile BALCO case (SI, March 13) -- which targeted the selling of steroids to elite athletes -- but also with a new willingness to go into the trenches to fight large-scale, grassroots trafficking. Last month the U.S. Sentencing Commission dramatically toughened the penalties for steroid offenses, putting them on an equal footing with other Schedule III drugs, such as LSD and Vicodin. "A few years ago when you talked to senior law-enforcement people [about combating drug use], they wouldn't talk about steroids," says Scott Burns, a deputy director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy and a U.S. representative to the World Anti-Doping Agency, "but now they have made the trafficking of steroids a priority."
Still, when Operation Gear Grinder was launched two years ago, its goal -- to grind to a halt the gears of top companies in the Mexican steroid industry -- seemed impossibly ambitious. Could the U.S. government alter the business practices of drug companies based in Mexico, where selling anabolic steroids over the counter is legal, and shut off the supply of those drugs heading north? And even if it succeeded in doing so, would that be enough to make even a tiny dent in America's steroid market?
The answer, it turned out, would be yes on both counts.
The most successful crackdown ever on performance-enhancing drugs did not begin as a hunt for steroids. It started with a probe called Operation TKO, the goal of which was to cut off the supply of ketamine, a dangerous hallucinogen popular with ravers. In 2003, as a result of TKO, U.S. and Mexican authorities shut down a Mexico City-based company, Laboratorios Ttokkyo, which produced 80%-to-90% of the ketamine found in the U.S.
Jack worked on the operation and noted that Ttokkyo had also manufactured veterinary steroids, which are most commonly used to hasten the growth of beef cattle. What caught his attention was that many of the steroids were sold in pet stores and farmacias (pharmacies) in Mexican border towns and tourist destinations like Cancún and Ensenada -- and were bought almost exclusively for human use, largely by Americans. (Mexico's veterinary-steroid industry stepped up production for use by humans to meet the demand created after the Anabolic Steroid Control Act of 1990 toughened penalties for illicit steroid sales within the U.S.) Aware of the growing steroid problem, Jack wondered what other companies might be making or distributing supposed veterinary steroids that were really aimed at bodybuilders and young athletes.