SI Vault
 
The Mexican Connection
George Dohrmann
April 24, 2006
Operation Gear Grinder shut down a flourishing drug business in a BALCO-scale investigation of major steroid trafficking
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
April 24, 2006

The Mexican Connection

Operation Gear Grinder shut down a flourishing drug business in a BALCO-scale investigation of major steroid trafficking

View CoverRead All Articles
1 2 3 4 5

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 Canc´┐Żn 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.

Jack's partner, Bob, the department's prescription-drug expert, sent investigators to visit all eight of the DEA's domestic labs, where steroids captured in the U.S. are sent to be analyzed and, ultimately, destroyed. Bob and his team painstakingly pulled every steroid vial and file, and they created a database for the origin of each drug. "What surprised us was that every lab, whether it was Chicago, New York, or Miami, had steroids from Mexico," Jack says. Further analysis showed that 82% of the steroids seized in the U.S. were made south of the border. "It was shocking," says Jack. "We thought we'd see more from Asia or Europe."

The target was too tempting to pass up. "In the drug game, if you make a one percent difference, that's phenomenal," says assistant U.S. attorney Laura Duffy, who attended the March 2004 meeting of agents, prosecutors and others at which Operation Gear Grinder was laid out. "What got us motivated is that we thought there was a chance we could make an 82 percent difference."

Not that he needed it, but Jack found more motivation in the summer of '05 while watching TV with his sons. Flipping through the channels one Sunday night, he stopped on 60 Minutes, a show he normally never watched. Don Hooton was on camera telling correspondent Jim Stewart about Taylor's suicide and lamenting that steroids were so easily available to kids. "I have not seen an interest in taking responsibility for this problem and taking active steps to stop it," Hooton said.

"I wanted to reach through the TV," Jack says, "to grab him and say, 'Don't worry. We're going to do something.'"

The charges the U.S. Attorney's office hoped to pin on the eight targeted companies and on owners like Saltiel-Cohen were plain enough: conspiracy to import anabolic steroids into the U.S., conspiracy to distribute anabolic steroids and conspiracy to launder money obtained by illicit acts. To prove these felonies, however, Jack and his team first had to establish that the owners, managers and distributors knew that the steroids were destined for the U.S.

It was obvious to the DEA that the companies' websites were geared toward U.S. users. Many of the sites were available only in English, complete with American flags on their home pages. "The websites are how they made a lot of their money," Jack says, "but we also felt that was their Achilles' heel."

The DEA set up a website of its own, bio-power-meds.com, purportedly backed by a distributor flush with cash and ready to serve as a conduit to customers in the states. Informants also posed as distributors looking to buy large quantities of steroids. Sites such as anabolicsclub.com and mexicansteroidsales.com allegedly sold steroids to the feds from Saltiel-Cohen's three companies, Animal Power, Denkall and Quality Vet, and shipped them to P.O. boxes set up by the DEA. In all, agents seized or tracked some 360,000 doses of anabolic steroids. IRS investigators tracked the payments.

DEA agents and informants communicated with sellers using BlackBerrys, and the e-mails were routed to an FBI Regional Computer Forensics Laboratory to be indexed as evidence. The DEA also targeted e-mail accounts it suspected were being used by distributors and set up wiretaps. Transcribers marveled at how well-spoken the alleged traffickers were. "They are used to drug suspects who use a lot of slang," Jack says, "but these men were proper, they were businessmen, they were highly intelligent."

Continue Story
1 2 3 4 5