Sacramento ain't no Breaking Bad

The regional meth scene stars more addicts than kingpins

Time is running out for the man called “Scarface.”

But because this is real life, the vividly monikered target of a federal methamphetamine probe will go down in a hail of warrants and indictments, not bullets and blow.

It’s the afternoon of April 13, and, unbeknownst to Joshua “Scarface” Avila, an undercover detective is parked outside the 36-year-old’s Rio Linda home watching one-half of a suspected drug buy go down.

Earlier that day, federal agents listened in on a phone conversation between two Sacramento-based men with alleged cartel ties as they discussed just how much weight “El Cara Parchada”—or “the patched face”—wanted to obtain.

According to a warrant affidavit filed by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, it was decided that Avila likely wanted another “manuela,” which authorities believe to mean 5 pounds, since the term is Spanish slang for hand, which has five fingers.

During the course of their nine-month undercover investigation, federal and local authorities chased many hands around Sacramento, from a suspected stash house in the southwestern part of the city to multiple residences throughout the county, where midlevel buyers are accused of purchasing serious amounts of crystal.

In May, federal prosecutors in both Sacramento and Hawaii indicted seven men—including three locals and one Mexican national who was living here. Three are currently incarcerated at the county jail downtown. If convicted, they face the possibility of life in prison.

The wide-ranging operation represented a rare sweep of meth-traffickers in Sacramento, which is more notorious for its devoted, growing customer base than kingpins with catchy nicknames like “Heisenberg,” the alias adopted by fictional chemistry teacher-turned meth chef Walter White on Breaking Bad, whose final season begins Sunday night.

In the Sacramento region this year, the U.S. attorney’s office tallied a total of four methamphetamine-related actions. That compares with 13 marijuana-related actions in the region over the same span.

While three times as many weed-makers and movers are getting indicted or sentenced to serious federal penitentiary time, Sacramento’s law-enforcement agencies continue to rack up tweaker arrests. Between August 3 and 4, for instance, the city police department cuffed seven people for possessing the ubiquitous, off-white narcotic, which has proven difficult to eradicate, despite multistate prohibitions against pseudoephedrine, a crucial ingredient that has been outlawed in Mexico and heavily restricted in California and Canada.

“[The availability of methamphetamine] is as high as it’s been in years,” said William Ruzzamenti, executive director of Central Valley High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas, a task force created in 1999 to deal with the skyrocketing meth epidemic.

Ruzzamenti would know. He’s been working the drug-enforcement beat for 45 years, including a stint cracking down on psychedelics in Haight-Ashbury during the early 1970s.

Over the past decade, a crop of new drug laws got most of the meth-manufacturing outsourced to Mexico, where cartels wage a violent drug war, but that hasn’t made it any harder to score crank in the 916.

“Probably just the opposite,” Ruzzamenti said.

According to the agent, cartel-fronted manufacturers liquify their product and stash it in tequila bottles and detergent jugs, slap on factory seals, and truck it up the interstate. Liquid-meth-conversion labs in small rural counties like Fresno, Kern, Tulare, Stanislaus and San Joaquin turn this guck into primo ice. Distributors do the rest.

“Sacramento is virtually surrounded by counties that have major manufacturing,” Ruzzamenti told SN&R.

And, every once in a while, someone attempts a massive home delivery.

This past April, customs and border agents at the Sacramento International Airport arrested a man who had more than 15 pounds of meth stashed in a pair of decorative wooden carts. The alleged smuggler arrived on a flight from Guadalajara, Mexico.

While the supply rarely originates here, this county, with its 1.45 million residents, is where the demand is.

According to the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy, 43 percent of Sacramento arrestees tested positive for methamphetamine in 2011, “significantly higher than any year since 2003,” when about 46 percent tested positive. The report also found a growing number of users scored the drug through “noncash” transactions. Of those local users who said they weren’t able to purchase meth, only 15 percent said it was because of a lack of access.

But access may become an issue. Ruzzamenti said Mexican-based cartels are shifting their focus to marijuana, which is cheaper and easier to produce, and more profitable. But meth’s addictive qualities, which easily outpace crack cocaine and heroin, mean “the bad guys have a captive audience with the speed freaks,” he said.

Avila is accused of fostering that audience with his midsized purchases. So is Sacramento’s Salvador Padilla, 33, also indicted in the probe.

Fingered as leaders of the operation, Armando Flores “Huedo” Vasquez and Miguel Angel Flores-Mendez, a Mexican citizen, were both living in Sacramento when investigators tapped their phones in March and eavesdropped on what are believed to be multiple, coded conversations about drug orders. One of those calls led to detectives setting up outside the alleged stash house in south Sacramento to observe a 20-pound delivery of meth on April 9, when a moment of levity interrupted an otherwise dour surveillance operation.

After a suspect identified as Miguel Angel Rangel arrived at the residence in a black GMC pickup truck and went inside, investigators monitored another coded call between Vasquez and Flores-Mendez. In it, Vasquez asked Flores-Mendez whether he had 10 “pesos” to give the 300-pound Rangel, whom they referred to as “Gordo.”

According to the warrant affidavit, 10 “pesos” is believed to mean $10,000. Needing less interpretation is Rangel’s nickname: “Rangel is a large male,” the affidavit explains. “The translation of ’Gordo’ in Spanish is fat.”

Rangel, Vasquez and Serafin “Niko” Magallon were indicted on separate drug conspiracy charges May 1, in Hawaii, said U.S. attorney’s office spokeswoman Lauren Horwood. Horwood’s eastern district office holds the option to charge the men in its case, depending on how the one in Hawaii goes, “among other things,” she said.

A status conference for the local defendants is scheduled later this month.