SAN DIEGO (AP) — U.S. border inspectors are not only seizing drugs coming into the country from Mexico — they're catching them on the way out.
A Los Angeles-area doctor and 14 others have been charged in a conspiracy to smuggle prescription drugs from California to Mexico, authorities said Friday.
The unusual operation sent a flood of opiates to Tijuana pharmacies in exchange for bundles of cash that were brought back into the U.S. American addicts were able to buy the pills over the counter on jaunts across the border from San Diego, investigators told The Associated Press.
Authorities speculated it was easier for smugglers to unload large batches of pills at loosely regulated Mexican pharmacies than to distribute them in small amounts to American street dealers.
They said it's also profitable: A smuggler who buys a pill for about $2 in the United States can sell it to a Mexican pharmacy for about $3.50, and the American addict pays about $6 to bring it back home.
"We got Tijuana in the palm of our hand," Jason Lewis, one of the people accused of smuggling, said in a wiretapped conversation, according to a search warrant affidavit filed in the case. "We've been doing this for years, bro."
Investigators say the San Diego ring is the first they found that was smuggling drugs into Mexico.
The 17-month investigation resulted in the arrest this week of Dr. Tyron Reece, a 71-year-old general practitioner who runs a solo practice in the Los Angeles suburb of Inglewood. He did not immediately respond to a phone message Friday.
Reece wrote prescriptions last year for about 920,000 hydrocodone pills, which are commonly sold under the brand names Vicodin and Lortab, authorities said.
Investigators said the drug organization's ringleader, Anthony "Sam" Wright, 67, earned $1,000 a day by driving rented cars to Los Angeles from a distant suburb to get the pills to couriers who lived in San Diego's northern suburbs. Attempts to reach Wright were unsuccessful.
Smugglers strapped pills to their bodies or hid them in engine compartments before crossing the border. Their favorite checkpoint was San Ysidro, the nation's busiest crossing that connects San Diego and Tijuana. They usually crossed at night.
By law, Mexican border pharmacies must get prescriptions from Mexican doctors for powerful painkillers and psychotropic drugs. But it's not hard to find ones that will break the law.
On a recent Saturday, a white-coated man behind the counter of a tiny Tijuana pharmacy offered hydrocodone for $10 a pop, oxycodone pills for $15 each and 90-tablet bottles of Valium for $130. He spoke fluent English and said prescriptions were unnecessary.
As part of the investigation, a 41-year-old woman was arrested walking across the border around 3 a.m. with 8,200 hydrocodone pills in two juice boxes, and a 37-year-old man was taken into custody walking across with nearly 4,000 hydrocodone tablets tied to his leg and waist.
Profits from the scheme came back to the United States. A 39-year-old woman linked to the ring was arrested entering the United States with about $27,000 cash stuffed in her bra.
The investigation began when a pharmacist at a major chain in the San Diego suburb of Oceanside called state authorities about a suspicious prescription from an employee. The employee told investigators she got the prescription from Milton Farmer, 53, who was already on the radar of federal investigators.
The Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement, a division of the California Department of Justice, joined ICE to pursue theories that Farmer was involved in smuggling.
Sifting through the trash of Farmer's Oceanside home, investigators said they found about 50 empty hydrocodone bottles, officials said. The peeled labels were clear enough to show Dabney's Pharmacy, which operates at an aging storefront in South Los Angeles. The search warrant affidavit said Reece was the prescribing doctor.
"It was like a puzzle," said Chris Raagas, a state investigator. "We'd get a tidbit here, a tidbit there."
Reece and seven others, including Wright and Farmer, were charged in federal court in San Diego with conspiracy to distribute a controlled substance. Farmer pleaded not guilty Friday to one count. An e-mail message left for his attorney Bradley Patton was not immediately returned.
A phone message for pharmacy manager Charles Dabney also was not returned. He was among the people charged in the federal indictment with conspiracy.
Seven others face charges in state court, authorities said.
Hydrocodone, nearly as powerful as morphine, caused 2,499 deaths in the United States from 1998 to 2002, the most recent data analyzed by the Drug Enforcement Administration. The DEA says there were 130 million prescriptions written in 2006, up nearly 50 percent over six years.
Last Thursday, investigators knocked on the door of Fatina Hicks, who was accused of carrying the cash in her bra as she returned to the United States and strapping nearly 2,800 hydrocodone pills to her stomach as she entered Mexico.
Hicks didn't resist as authorities arrested her and took her from her 11-year-old son at a nondescript four-unit apartment building in Fallbrook, a San Diego County farming community known for its avocado orchards. She agreed to put one of the major suspects on the phone.
"It's in your best interest to turn yourself in as soon as possible," Raagas told Farmer. "Let's sit down and hash this out."
Attempts to reach Hicks were unsuccessful.
The arrests come amid the fifth year of Mexican President Felipe Calderon's war on Mexican drug cartels that sell tons of cocaine, marijuana, heroin and methamphetamine every year. U.S. authorities don't expect prescription drugs will be a top crime-fighting priority in Mexico.
"I don't think it's going to rise high on their radar," Raagas said.
Associated Press writer Greg Risling contributed to this report from Los Angeles.