The Ketamine Connection
Two men formed cartel to smuggle drug from Mexico into U.S.
By Onell R. SotoUNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER
May 1, 2005
There aren't enough dogs and cats in Mexico to warrant the amount of an animal anesthetic that Laboratorios Ttokkyo manufactured at a factory near Mexico City.
Not that it mattered – Ttokkyo was producing the drug for human consumption.
Its primary distributor was a Tijuana veterinary supply store operator who smuggled the drug, ketamine, through San Diego to drug abusers as far away as New York and Miami who knew the substance as "Special K."
The blossoming business coincided with the rise of the Internet, the growing popularity of ketamine among young people who like to party at dance clubs and determined efforts by U.S. officials to crack down on the drug.
Ketamine became a controlled substance in the United States in 1999, which meant it was only available with a prescription. The Drug Enforcement Administration describes the effects of ketamine as hallucinogenic.
An Oakland-based drug education organization listed the effects of the drug for most users as mild inebriation, dreamy thinking, stumbling, clumsy or robotic movement and delayed or reduced sensations.
However, at higher doses, it can be fatal or cause near-death experiences, in which users have difficulting moving, experience visions and feel as if they enter other realities.
The DEA says rapists use ketamine to knock out their victims and that the drug can cause brain damage.
Federal investigators said most of the ketamine abused in the United States a few years ago came from the Ttokkyo factory of Dr. Jose Francisco Molina Alvarado.
His lawyers called him "a national treasure" in Mexico for his work in pharmaceutical research and said he spent years working on improving the health of millions of people.
His primary partner was Jorge Chevreuil Bravo, 43, who took over the veterinary supply company his father founded 40 years earlier and built it into a chain with 14 stores, mostly along the U.S. border and in beach resorts frequented by young people on spring break, prosecutors said.
From middle-class beginnings, the men developed a criminal enterprise that drew the attention of drug cartels, led to kidnapping attempts and shootouts on Tijuana streets and landed both in prison, prosecutors said.
"It was a cartel," said San Diego DEA office spokesman Misha Piastro. "It controlled the production, the transportation and the distribution of an illicit substance. It was a drug cartel in its own right."
The group also was a big producer and distributor of steroids, but because those were legal without a prescription in Mexico at the time, the investigation focused on ketamine, authorities said.
One midlevel steroid dealer recalled visiting Bravo's Tijuana store in the fall of 1999 and noticing ketamine for the first time, a prosecutor said in court documents.
Bravo told him it was an animal tranquilizer, but the "crazy gringos" were taking it, he said.
In 1999, he struck a deal with Ttokkyo, and sales skyrocketed after a U.S. company agreed to a DEA request to stop exporting ketamine to Mexico, where it was bought by smugglers who brought it back north.
That year, Ttokkyo imported about 440 pounds of raw ketamine from China, enough to make about 200,000 vials, prosecutor Timothy Coughlin said in court papers.
Each vial sold for about $10 in Mexico, but cost about $50 on the black market in New York City or Miami and more than $100 in the Midwest, authorities said.
In the first half of 2002, Ttokkyo imported more than 2 tons of the raw drug, enough for 2 million vials. That's enough to anesthetize 20 million dogs and cats.
But it wasn't enough to meet demand, Bravo told Molina that summer in a conversation taped by a U.S. informant wearing a hidden microphone, Coughlin said.
By then, Bravo, who was the sole Ttokkyo distributor, was selling 98 percent of the ketamine in Mexico, he said.
Bravo had a group of smugglers who used vans with false floors to take the drugs across the border and charged a 15 percent fee for delivery in the United States, the prosecutor said.
Bravo's couriers used storage lockers in South Bay to make deliveries to local dealers, he said.
But bigger shipments made it through as well, including 23,000 vials in a moving van stopped in Kansas on its way from San Diego.
Bravo also filled orders on Ttokkyo's Web site, Coughlin said.
But the growing ketamine business – and its mushrooming profits – caused other problems for Molina and Bravo.
A Mexican drug cartel demanded a piece of the action in 2002, Bravo's lawyer told a judge.
Bravo hired security guards, and in August, a convoy of armed men tried to kidnap him and shot at his car as he raced home in Tijuana, the lawyer, Guadalupe Valencia, said in court documents.
A month later, Bravo and Molina landed in Panama, eager to meet a contact for sales in Latin America. Instead, they were whisked onto a DEA plane and flown to Florida, where agents arrested and questioned them.
Molina told the agents they must be mistaken, that he was a businessman who sold veterinary medications legally.
"We didn't export to the U.S." he said. "We didn't have people. We didn't have sales in the U.S."
Bravo didn't tell the agents anything.
"In the back of his mind, Jorge knew that eventually things would come to an end," his lawyer said earlier this year. "But he never imagined what would happen next."
A missing son
A year after the arrest, Bravo's 22-year-old son was followed by gunmen as he returned home from school, Valencia said.
Much as his father had done earlier, the son sped off, but his pursuers, firing shots, caught up and abducted him.
His mother worked with police to try to pay a ransom, but agents tried to arrest the kidnappers and a gunfight broke out. A kidnapper was killed and three others were arrested.
Bravo's wife eventually paid a $300,000 ransom through unofficial channels, the lawyer told the judge. A year and a half later, her son is still missing and presumed dead.
When Bravo pleaded guilty in February 2004, he admitted that his operation imported more than $10 million worth of the drug into the United States. He was sentenced Monday to 6½ years in federal prison.
At his sentencing, Bravo said he never meant to violate U.S. law. But still, he said, "I don't consider myself guilty of everything that's being brought up."
Molina was sent back to Mexico for prosecution last year after pleading guilty in San Diego federal court.
The DEA says the bust was a success and that agents find ketamine much less frequently now.
A member of DanceSafe, the Oakland group that advocates drug education, said he too saw supplies dry up.
"But, as with all drug busts, as soon as they take one dealer down, five more pop up to take his place," said the man, who didn't want to be identified because of a drug conviction. "There are still mail-order suppliers in Mexico, Europe, India and other countries in Asia."
Drug News + Mexico + ketamine + drug smuggling + drug cartel + pharmaceutical +