The Mexican Connection
Operation Gear Grinder shut down a flourishing drug business in a BALCO-scale investigation of major steroid trafficking
From his parked car, Jack, the special agent from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, had a clear view of the entrance to the Empress Hotel in La Jolla, Calif. It was Dec. 14, an overcast day, and Jack's men were all in place. They were hoping to arrest a key figure in Mexico's steroid industry, a pharmaceuticals executive and trained veterinarian named Alberto Saltiel-Cohen, who, according to a tip, was staying at the Empress.
Jack waited and watched, looking for a man who fit Saltiel-Cohen's description: 5'8", slim, early to mid-50s, Latino, with a goatee. Jack himself is trim, his black hair peppered with gray. He is the father of two boys, the younger of whom, an 11-year-old, loves baseball. Like many fathers, Jack (who asked that only his first name be used, to avoid compromising his ongoing investigative work) had watched the 2005 congressional hearings on steroid use in pro sports and heard the stories of young athletes abusing the drugs. But unlike other parents, he didn't feel helpless against the seeming epidemic. For 21 months he had been the lead agent in Operation Gear Grinder, the largest steroid-trafficking investigation in history. Now he was poised to nab the man whose three companies had allegedly produced more than 70% of the $56 million worth of illegal anabolic steroids seized annually in the United States.
When a man matching Saltiel-Cohen's description emerged from the hotel and stopped at the curb, standing there in dark jeans and a leather jacket like any tourist waiting for a cab, Jack felt his heart leap. He glanced once more at a photo of Saltiel-Cohen and gave the order to his men. "Go ahead. Arrest him," he said into his radio.
Less than an hour later Jack called the person who he believed would take the greatest pleasure in the news of the bust: Don Hooton. In July 2003, Hooton's 17-year-old son, Taylor, a baseball player at Plano (Texas) West Senior High, committed suicide after four months of using a steroid manufactured by one of Saltiel-Cohen's companies. The teen's much-publicized death had come to represent the dangers of illegal performance enhancers to young athletes.
"Can you come to San Diego?" Jack asked Don. "Something big is coming down."
DEA agents like Jack say that trying to stop the trafficking of illegal drugs is like trying to catch water from a gushing faucet. No one knows for sure how large the illegal-steroid trade is, but illicit sales to U.S. customers are estimated by some industry insiders to exceed a billion dollars a year. The drugs are everywhere: In a 2004 University of Michigan survey, 42.6% of 12th-graders said steroids were "fairly easy" or "very easy" to get. That survey and one done by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in '03 put the number of high school seniors who had tried steroids at 3.4% and 4.9%, respectively.
Law enforcement has scarcely attempted to stanch the flow. Other street drugs have been a higher priority. Weak sentencing guidelines have also undercut steroid prosecutions. Other obstacles -- from a lack of jurisdiction over foreign manufacturers to the impossibility of screening the tens of millions of packages coming into the U.S. each day -- have made fighting the problem difficult. Along the porous Mexican-U.S. border, across which human "mules" carry inexpensive steroids bound for dealers in the U.S., policing is limited by a lack of manpower and even dogpower; steroids don't emit the telltale odors many other banned drugs do, so canine patrols are ineffective.