SAN DIEGO – A doctor who wrote nearly a million prescriptions for a popular painkiller last year has been charged in a strike against a ring that smuggled prescription drugs to Mexico from the U.S., according to an indictment obtained Friday.
The unusual operation brought a flood of yellow and blue hydrocodone tablets to Tijuana pharmacies, where American addicts snapped them up over the counter on jaunts across the border from San Diego, investigators said.
Authorities speculate that it was easier for smugglers to unload large batches of pills at those loosely regulated pharmacies than to distribute them in small amounts through American street dealers.
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.
"This organization found the black market in Mexico as the least risky way to conduct their business," said Derek Benner, special agent in charge of investigations at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in San Diego. "To distribute these types of pharmaceuticals on the street here in the United States a few pills at a time is a lot riskier. The organization has a lot greater chance to be exposed than one bulk shipment crossing the border into Mexico."
The risk of getting caught carrying drugs across the border into Mexico is minuscule. Motorists and pedestrians are almost never stopped for questioning, unlike the tough scrutiny they face when entering the United States.
The 17-month investigation culminated with the arrest of Dr. Tyron Reece, a 71-year-old general practitioner who runs a solo practice in the Los Angeles suburb of Inglewood.
Reece wrote 920,000 prescriptions last year for hydrocodone, which is commonly sold under the brand names Vicodin and Lortab, authorities said. That averages to 35 prescriptions a day, typically for 100 pills each.
Investigators said Anthony "Sam" Wright, 67, drove rented cars several times a day to Los Angeles from a distant suburb to get the pills to couriers who lived in San Diego's northern suburbs.
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 easy to find ones that will break the law around Tijuana's main tourist drag, Avenida Revolucion, where wide sidewalks are lined with noisy bars and souvenir shops.
On a recent Saturday, a white-coated man behind the counter of a tiny pharmacy a half-block off the strip 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 California Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement joined ICE to pursue theories that Farmer was involved in smuggling.
Sifting through the trash of his Oceanside home, investigators found about 50 empty hydrocodone bottles. The peeled labels were clear enough to show a pharmacy in an aging storefront in South Los Angeles. 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."
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.
U.S. border inspectors have long busted pill-popping Americans returning from Mexico but didn't know how the Mexican border pharmacies got the drugs. Investigators say the San Diego ring is the first they found that was smuggling drugs into Mexico.
Surveys show only 1 percent of Mexicans have abused prescription drugs, said Dr. Jose Luis Vasquez, deputy director of intergovernmental relations at Mexico's National Commission Against Addictions. The high cost may be a deterrent.
"In Mexico, the abuse of prescription drugs is a minor problem," Vasquez said. "You don't see it in the rehab clinics."
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 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."
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.