Take Action


As Drug Routes Shift, a Meth Trail Leads to Chinatown

The New York Times, March 14, 2013

In the past, his work as an undercover drug investigator had often led through New York City’s Chinese enclaves as he pursued heroin shipments from Asia. But seven or eight years ago, the investigator’s supervisors at the Drug Enforcement Administration disbanded his unit and assigned him elsewhere. The reason was simple: drug routes were changing, and Colombian and Mexican heroin had won over the New York market.

But last year, he returned to Manhattan’s Chinatown in pursuit of a new lead: a number of low-level drug dealers seemed to have access to a large supply of methamphetamine, a drug that had burned a path across much of the country but had never quite caught on in New York City.

And after a lengthy investigation that played out across Chinatown and Flushing, the undercover investigator found himself standing in the parking lot of the closed Pathmark supermarket on Cherry Street, buying nearly $200,000 worth of crystal methamphetamine, according to interviews and court documents.

Four men were arrested in January in connection to the case. An indictment unsealed in State Supreme Court in Manhattan on Thursday offered new details. Investigators said they were surprised to find that such a large quantity of crystal methamphetamine, most likely manufactured in Mexico, was so readily available for sale in the city’s Chinese neighborhoods, suggesting a new pipeline.

“This prosecution sheds light for us on the fact that these Chinese men were able to very easily obtain methamphetamine from Mexican suppliers, and this is a lot of meth,” said Bridget G. Brennan, the city’s special narcotics prosecutor.

For years, the market for crystal methamphetamine in New York City has centered on nightclubs, and law enforcement officials here frequently express relief that the market does not appear to be rapidly growing.

“We see it in Chelsea and in the Asian community,” said Brian Crowell, the special agent in charge of the D.E.A.’s New York field office. “We’ve seen it staying level in New York City,” he said.

So far, Ms. Brennan said, it has been “pretty much a niche drug” within the city. Of the four men arrested, one had previously faced drug charges related to ketamine, an anesthetic, and another had once been indicted in a federal case involving a conspiracy to import Ecstasy. But it did not appear any had ever faced charges relating to methamphetamine. Most of the men lived in Flushing, Queens, and one, Ping Lin, 50, was a restaurant worker.

Lawyers for three of the men said their clients pleaded not guilty Thursday, but they declined to comment further, saying they had not yet been given a chance to review much of the evidence in the case.

Between April 2012 and January of this year, the undercover officer repeatedly bought drugs from several of the accused men, starting with small quantities of Ecstasy and methamphetamine, according to court papers.

Then in August came a crucial meeting at Old Shanghai Deluxe restaurant at the corner of Mott and Bayard Streets, where the undercover officer negotiated with two of the men, Mr. Lin and Liyuan Sheng. It was there that Mr. Sheng agreed to call his supplier, according to the indictment.

After buying an ounce of methamphetamine from the men for $7,000 in December, the undercover investigator showed up to the parking lot of the closed Pathmark supermarket on Cherry Street in Chinatown. There, he bought about three-quarters of a kilogram for $193,000. The men were arrested shortly thereafter. Law enforcement officials said that the case involved extensive wiretaps and that targets appeared to be less vigilant than most drug dealers when conversing in Mandarin over the telephone.

“Unlike cocaine or heroin traffickers, who typically use coded language, and are cagey,” Ms. Brennan said, the intercepted phone conversations in this case “were much more blatant or upfront than others we listen to.”

Mr. Crowell said, “The undercover knew the community so well, and he was able to infiltrate them.”

Ms. Brennan said that it may have been on account of how rarely drug investigators in New York have a wiretap for a suspect who speaks Mandarin.

“They didn’t believe anybody would be listening in,” she added.