Sep 10, 2020
AG William Barr Press Conference Transcript September 10: Targeting Drug Trafficking Networks
AG William Barr held a press conference on September 10 to address the increased targeting of drug trafficking networks. Read the transcript of the briefing speech here.
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… drugs, weapons and contraband. As we make a special announcement about Operation Crystal Shield, it is my honor to introduce to you the Attorney General of the United States, Mr. William Barr.
William Barr: (00:19)
Thank you, Sherry and good morning everyone. And thank you all for coming today. I’m here to discuss this morning a serious challenge facing law enforcement throughout the country. And the DEA’s operation that has been mounted to meet that challenge and discuss some of the preliminary results. It relates to drug trafficking and methamphetamine and the associated violent crime. I’ve always said that the first duty of government is to protect the public’s safety. And that is obviously the department’s top priority. State and local law enforcement has the primary responsibility. They’re really at the frontline of protecting the public’s peace and safety. But the federal government has joined forces with state and local law enforcement to fight violent crime. And since the 1990s, we have leaned forward, the federal government has leaned forward and used our tools that we have, especially in the area of gun violence, organized crime, including gangs and drugs and drug trafficking to go after violent criminals in conjunction with our state and local partners who work with us on joint task forces in various cities and rural areas. Over the last three years, I’m happy to say that violent crime in this country has been steadily going down largely because these efforts of our joint task forces. This year however, while that pattern still holds in much of the country, we have started to see an uptick in crime in many areas, in many of our large cities, especially. This became very pronounced in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis and the subsequent demonization of police and the defund the police movement. And our response has been, the Department of Justice response has been Operation Legend where we have taken substantial, additional federal resources, over a thousand agents and tens of millions of dollars to augment our task forces in nine targeted cities. And I was in Chicago yesterday to announce the early results of Project Legend, which we’re very pleased with. The cities have come in on a staggered basis, but since we started it in July 22nd, we’ve had 2,500 arrests and crime has dropped markedly in all of the Legend cities.
William Barr: (03:37)
But today I want to talk about another serious challenge to the public safety, the one that is closely associated with violence, and that is the surgeon trafficking in methamphetamine. Now, we’ve all heard about the opioid crisis and it certainly has been and remains a crisis for our country. We’ve heard about all the overdoses. Now, for the first three years of this administration, we have been able to initially flatten the curve and then even reduce opioid overdoses. And most of this has come by substantial progress in the abuse of prescription drugs, lawful prescription drugs. But unfortunately this year, and this is perhaps associated with COVID in some way, we’ve seen an increase in opioid overdoses. And some of this has been fueled, if not most of it, by a shift to synthetic opioids, principally fentanyl, which is a very deadly drug. Nevertheless, and that remains a challenge for us to go after that fentanyl, which as many of you may know, the precursors largely come from China, go into Mexico and Mexico manufacturers it and the cartels send it up to the United States.
William Barr: (05:18)
But when I took office in February, 2019, I quickly saw that while the opioid crisis was in fact something we had to tackle hard, in many parts of the country the primary danger was methamphetamine. And some states have a very low opioid problem, very high methamphetamine problem. And we started trying to deal more aggressively with the growing problem of methamphetamine. Meth is a very dangerous and deadly drug. It ravages the body. I think we’ve all seen the before and after shots. Teeth fall out, scabs on the face that the addicted person picks at. They look like walking zombies. And it destroys the health of the addicted person and it severely alters the mind. It is destroying the ability of people to control their impulses. It propels anger, rage, and aggression and leads, frequently, to violence. Study after study show that it closely correlates to violence and is involved in a lot of domestic violence as well as homicides. Unlike opioids, we don’t have something to counteract it therapeutically.
William Barr: (06:49)
There is no Narcan for methamphetamine. That the violence arises in two principal ways. One the users themselves, frequently out of control, attacking police. We’ve had unfortunate instance here in Arizona of a police officer killed by someone on methamphetamine. It also arises from the groups that are involved in its distribution in the United States. Frequently, the lowest level of distribution are the street gangs in major cities. Now, previously methamphetamine was largely made in the United States. It was cooked domestically on a small scale. Now, it is manufactured on an industrial scale by the two major cartels in Mexico, the Sinaloa and CJNG. It comes across the border via a distribution network where it goes, initially, to multiple large cities in the United States, fewer than 12. And from there, it is broken down and distributed throughout the country. And it’s now moved into states and areas and communities where we haven’t seen it before. So it is largely becoming and has become really a national problem. And it’s devastating communities.
William Barr: (08:23)
The Mexican meth is very pure and potent compared to the previous production from the United States and it’s extremely cheap, which has allowed it to take hold. Now, in addition to violence, we are seeing an increase in meth overdoses. In 2018, there were approximately 12,000 overdoses with psychostimulants like methamphetamine. 2019, it went up to 16,000, 25% increase, and we’re likely to see a significant increase this year. Arizona has seen a 17% increase in methamphetamine overdoses with over 2000 deaths in 2019. Now, DOJ is responding with a two prong approach. The ultimate solution or the core solution to methamphetamine and most of our drug problems ultimately lies in Mexico. Almost all the illicit drugs come up from Mexico and are controlled by these two dominant cartels, which are really states within the state. They act with impunity or have acted with impunity. And until we can deal decisively with the situation in Mexico, we’re not going to see an end to the drug problem. Progress has been made with Mexico. We had some very promising discussions with the new AMLO administration down there, President AMLO.
William Barr: (10:03)
… AMLO administration down there, President AMLO, and I made two trips down there in December and in January, 2019/2020. Although we had not gotten any extraditions of drug king pins and drug cartel members under that new administration, after those visits, we’ve had over 60 extraditions. We have also continued to work jointly with the Mexicans to apprehend additional cartel leaders for extradition to the United States.
William Barr: (10:42)
We also started increasing our coordinated operations against the cartels and had a fairly robust plan to work with the Mexicans in destroying meth labs. Unfortunately, COVID has intervened and has tempered a lot of the progress that we had been making, reduced our momentum. But we are confident that as COVID abates, we’re going to get back on track with Mexico and have a much stronger operation down there.
William Barr: (11:20)
But I said, we had two prongs, while we’re not taking our eye off the ball in Mexico, in February of 2019, DEA launched Crystal Shield, which is an operation to target the transportation and distribution network here in the United States. Like a lot of our other law enforcement activities, it was affected adversely by COVID, and a number of constraints were imposed on this. Practical constraints. Nonetheless, the operation has been yielding very impressive results, which we expect to accelerate in the months ahead.
William Barr: (11:59)
I’ll just add parenthetically that one of the things that has affected law enforcement across the board, but we’re certainly seeing it in a very pronounced way in our efforts against drug cartels, is the increasing use of encryption on communications, the use of apps like WhatsApp and Signal and others, which are increasingly used by criminal groups, especially the cartels. Whereas in the past, communications intelligence was central to investigations, we’re now finding that largely cut off by the use of this encryption. We’ve had to develop, and the DEA has been developing, the best possible response to that to keep up a strong law enforcement effort against the cartels.
William Barr: (12:51)
But with Crystal Shield, nationwide so far, there have been 1800 arrests, 28,005 pounds of meth seized. That’s the equivalent of 65 million doses and $43 million seized. Here in Arizona, there’ve been 3,900 pounds of methamphetamine seized, which is 8.8 million doses. Now it’s important to understand that the results of Crystal Shield are over and above and augment what I would call the baseline enforcement effort that’s directed against methamphetamine by the DEA. So for example, in 2019, the overall effort against methamphetamine by the DEA had resulted in a hundred thousand pounds of methamphetamine seized and 11,000 defendants charged.
William Barr: (13:48)
What’s different about Crystal Shield is that it is over and above that, and is also targeting, specifically, the large hubs, city hubs, that are the core of the distribution in the United States. It’s designed to seize it and dismantle the organizations that are involved in its distribution before it gets into smaller packages and distributed.
William Barr: (14:16)
So in sum, the trafficking of methamphetamine poses a major danger to our communities and the federal government is determined to disrupt, dismantle and destroy the violent drug trafficking organizations that place profits over human lives. We’re fortunate to work alongside here in Arizona, and elsewhere, state and local partners that share our commitment to this important mission. Together we are going to continue to work, to enforce the law and make our communities safer for all. Thank you.
Tim Shea: (15:05)
Thank you, General Barr. My name is Tim Shea, the Acting Administrator of the DEA. I want to start by emphasizing something that the attorney general mentioned with respect to overdoses. Last year, we saw the largest single increase, a 28% jump, in overdose deaths due to methamphetamine. More Americans now die from methamphetamine overdoses than from any other drug, except for fentanyl. As part of our national strategies to shield American families and neighborhoods from deadly methamphetamine, we developed a plan to take on this growing threat.
Tim Shea: (15:44)
But then as the AG mentioned, just as we launched our operations in February, the global pandemic hit. Despite all the challenges we faced during a massive public health crisis, DEA, and our state and local partners, never stopped working. Together as part of Crystal Shield, we led more than 750 successful investigations in key cities in the United States in just six months.
Tim Shea: (16:12)
As you heard from the attorney general, the impact of this operation is clear. The large number of seizures and arrests have dealt a significant blow to the Mexican cartels and the violent street gangs that seek to prey on innocent Americans across the country. But the impact of this operation can be felt far beyond the number of arrests and seizures.
Tim Shea: (16:34)
Every pound of methamphetamine seized represents American lives saved from the grip of drug abuse and addiction. Every dollar and profit denied these organizations constrain their ability to function, and every weapon taken off the street means less violent crime in our communities. Operation Crystal Shield is an important component of our larger strategy to target the command and control of the cartels from the profit of methamphetamine.
Tim Shea: (17:06)
As you may know, since 2005, Congress has strictly regulated the sale of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, the chemicals used to create myth. This means that methamphetamine is no longer produced in the United States in large quantities. Instead, it is manufactured on an industrial scale in Mexico and as much as several tons per week in each clandestine lab. In 2019 alone, Mexican cartels shipped hundreds of thousands of pounds of meth in tractor trailer trucks and personal vehicles across the Southwest border onto the highways of America, and then headed straight for the cities and towns across the country.
Tim Shea: (17:46)
During COVID, we’ve seen these cartels shift their methods due to border restrictions, but DEA and our federal state and local partners have remained vigilant and relentless. All over the nation, we increasingly see traffic or smuggling liquid meth then convert it into crystal meth in local labs in the United States. The criminals who run these conversion labs present a very real danger to nearby law abiding citizens and local enforcement.
Tim Shea: (18:17)
We’re also seeing an increase in counterfeit prescription pills pressed with methamphetamine and laced with fentanyl using the pill press like the one in this room. This is a very dangerous combination because even one dose of this can be more than lethal in many cases, and users taking them for the first time even, can be … A result, and committed to an overdose.
Tim Shea: (18:46)
Those who say drug trafficking is not a violent crime couldn’t be more wrong. The firearms you see here today show that the traffickers are well-armed and it also demonstrates that drug tracking poses a serious threat to the health and safety of our communities. It helps fuel the violent crime, not just here in Phoenix, but across the country. Drug trafficking directly affects the safety and security of all of us.
Tim Shea: (19:12)
The criminals who engage in drug trafficking fuel the epidemic of addiction in our country and profit from it while feeding the violence that is plaguing so many of our communities. They terrorize the neighborhoods with where they operate forcing residents to live in fear that their children and family members will be shot in the crossfire.
Tim Shea: (19:35)
That’s why DEA is committed to working with our federal, state and local law enforcement partners every day to disrupt, dismantle and destroy drug trafficking organizations. DEA partners with more than 3000 state and local task force offices nationwide. Many of the departments represented here today have task force offices with the DEA. Together, we build a highly effective team to drive down the threat …
Tim Shea: (20:03)
… build a highly effective team to drive down to threat from deadly methamphetamine and associated drug violence in our neighborhoods. The spread of COVID did not stop the drug traffickers and it did not stop us from actively pursuing investigations, reducing violent crime, seizing deadly drugs, and safeguarding American lives through Operation Crystal Shield. I want to thank the attorney general for coming here and then introduce the final speaker who is Chris Evans, the chief of operations for the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Chris Evans: (20:41)
Thank you. Good morning. As highlighted by Attorney General Barr and Acting Minister Shea, Operation Crystal Shield is the first of a kind strategic enforcement operation targeting the trafficking and transportation locations mexican cartels use to move and distribute meth throughout the country. The growing threat of methamphetamine in the United States requires a united and calculated approach from both federal and local law enforcement. To that end, we have used our comprehensive network of intelligence information and sources to analyze the cartel trafficking patterns, their networks, and their transportation methods. This analysis revealed that in 2019 more than 75% of the methamphetamine seized by DEA in the United States was seized in the nine of these regions. Those regions align with following DEA field divisions. Los Angeles, San Diego, El Paso, Dallas, Houston, New Orleans, Atlanta St. Louis and Phoenix. These regions became the focus of Operation Crystal Shield and we deployed all the tools available to those areas to identify, target and arrest those individuals who are spreading this deadly drug throughout our nation.
Chris Evans: (21:56)
Our targets included the drug transporters and shipment coordinators, as well as those who provide stores locations for the cartels. And most importantly, we targeted those in charge of these transportation networks. The impressive seizures and the assets identified by the Attorney General and Acting Minister Shea will provide reflection that just a part of the success related to Crystal Shield. Throughout the 750 investigations as part of this operation, we have garnered intelligence that will no doubt help us build future operations and cases as we continue our relentless pursuit against the cartels and their attempts to harm our communities.
Chris Evans: (22:31)
On a personal note, as a career DEA agent of 27 years, I’ve firsthand seen the devastation that meth inflicts upon our communities and the families in this country. Overdoses and violence are acts which destroy our communities and methamphetamine is a key driver of that. That’s why the investigations conducted under Crystal Shield are so significant. Of course, none of these investigations will be possible without the support of our state and local law enforcement partners, some of whom are with us on the stage today. The expertise and commitment brought by the state local partners to this effort is indispensable, and without them, this operation would not be able to happen. And we want to make sure from those at DEA, that we thank them for our support and their support in this effort. Thank you very much.
William Barr: (23:23)
Okay. Any questions?
Speaker 1: (23:30)
[ inaudible 00:23:27].
William Barr: (23:31)
Speaker 1: (23:34)
[inaudible 00:23:34] do you have any conversations with anyone in your office, with the white house and with the president about [inaudible 00:23:44]?
William Barr: (23:46)
I was told by lower level officials in the department that our request had come over and that it was going to be approved because it satisfied the requirements, but I wasn’t otherwise involved in the decision, but I do want to say something. I guess it’s representative of the kind of media that we have these days that they have so misrepresented this episode. Under the law, if a employee in the government be at the executive branch or the legislative branch is sued for a state toward for action taken in the course of their employment, they can certify … the case should be certified by the department of justice and removed to federal court. And the United States is substituted as the named party.
William Barr: (24:49)
The courts have held … and this has applied to presidents, to vice presidents, to senior officials, to lower level officials in government, to just regular employees and to members of Congress, courts have held explicitly that in a representative democracy like ours, elected officials who respond to press questions relating to their private affairs, even though they’re private affairs as office holders, that is considered to be action in the course of employment and falls under the Westfall act. And those cases are certified, removed to federal court and the United States is substituted. Press coverage around the country was wholly inaccurate yesterday in suggesting that this left the taxpayers on the hook for tortious conduct by government officers or employees. In fact, it does not. Once the United States is substituted, the case is dismissed because the United States has not waived sovereign immunity in those cases. And so the result is dismissal of the claim, not that the taxpayers foot the bill. Next question. Yes.
Speaker 2: (26:22)
William Barr: (26:35)
So based on my discussions with both the Mexican president, other members of the government and working groups that were set up in the wake of that, in addition to the capture and extradition of drug leaders into the US so we could prosecute them, one of the major areas of activity was the destruction of drug labs. And that was underway when COVID hit, and COVID has been very disruptive in Mexico and a lot of these operations have ceased, but the basic reaction of the Mexican administration was that they would, working closely with us and DEA especially, start methodically dismantling the drug lab labs. We’re able to detect where they are, and based on that intelligence, that would allow us to destroy them. And hopefully once COVID [inaudible 00:27:38] in Mexico, we’re going to resume work on that.
Speaker 3: (27:41)
William Barr: (27:45)
Speaker 3: (28:00)
[ inaudible 00:27:46].
Tim Shea: (28:07)
Right. There’s no question that COVID has had impact on their cartels’ activities and exchanged their method of distribution in some ways. They’ve taken more risks, shipping in larger quantities and smaller numbers. We’ve been able to respond to that over time. But we’ve seen stockpiling of drugs on both sides, on the Mexican side and money on the American side. So there is a significant impact of the slowing of the border and the border restrictions during COVID. So when these are lifted at some point, we’re expecting a flood of even more drugs coming into the United States. And we’re prepared for that here in Arizona and across the country. So that is a significant concern of ours, but we’ve seen the cartels try to adapt to that restriction, but we’ve been able to intercept quite a bit of that during this time.
Speaker 4: (29:08)
Mr. Barr, [inaudible 00:29:09] logic would tell you that foreign adversaries could produce and [inaudible 00:29:15] balance that can slip past local election officials. First of all, wouldn’t that be incredibly difficult to [inaudible 00:29:22] be able to mimic the balance, to get the list of mailing voters, to forge their signatures on the envelopes and do this all successfully in the two short weeks before the election. And secondly, if you do believe that this is a possibility, what is the justice department doing to try to avoid this from happening in the first place to detect these operators before it even happens [inaudible 00:09:46].
William Barr: (29:48)
Yeah. I know the media likes to focus on the issue of potential counterfeiting and I will address that, but let me make the broader point, which the media likes to avoid, their coverage generally avoids, which is my basic point.
William Barr: (30:03)
… avoids, which is my basic point on universal mailed ballots, not absentee ballots, when people request an absentee ballot, but the mailing out, universally, of ballots. What I’ve said is that opens the flood gate to potential fraud and coercion, and has always been recognized as creating those significant risks and a bipartisan commission in 2005 pointed to the increased risk of fraud and coercion. And I would ask people to think about why we vote today the way we vote. Why do we have specific polling places, your name’s on a list, you show up, you identify yourself, you go behind a curtain, no one else is allowed to be with you and you cast your vote to assure secrecy of the ballot and those measures have developed over the years because of concerns of fraud and coercion. And you can’t sell your vote, no one can intimidate you, no one can buy your vote and it reduces, radically, the risk of fraud when you have a secret ballot that’s organized the way we’ve had it organized.
William Barr: (31:20)
Now stop and think about what universal mailed out ballots do. They eliminate every single one of those protections. There’s no more a secret vote, there is no secret vote. Your name is associated with a particular ballot. So the government and the people involved can find out and know how you voted and it opens up the door to coercion. The reason we don’t allow people with the voter behind the curtain is precisely because of undue influence in coercion and now you have situations in nursing homes and elsewhere where people can say, “Hey, I’ll help you fill out that ballot.” And finally, the fact that ballots are mailed out the way they would be, many of them misdirected we’d know because of the inaccuracy of voting lists. There are going to be ballots floating around and collected and so, that opens up the possibility of fraud.
William Barr: (32:16)
I did observe after making the points here, that given our concern about foreign influence in campaigns, it’s ironic that no one seems to be concerned about this process of mailed-in ballots. In some places, perhaps, counterfeiting ballots would be difficult and others probably not difficult. But the question is, if you’re dealing with a nation state and a foreign intelligence service, is it really more costly than the less direct means of influence that they use today? Not really. So if a country has a strong interest in affecting the outcome and a lot of intelligence, which they do, as to what the key districts are, where the votes are close, and where a small number of votes relatively can swing a state, there is a risk of counterfeit. It may be difficult, but no more difficult and perhaps more effective than the amounts of money they spend on softer kinds of influence, like social media and hacking and other things. Next question.
Speaker 5: (33:32)
[inaudible 00:33:35]. Mr. Barr you said that, earlier in this press conference you said that [inaudible 00:33:41].
William Barr: (33:46)
Who do I blame for it? Well, I think there are a number of causes of the increase. I think part of it could be COVID, just as COVID is in part responsible or is one of the causes of the increase in drug usage and drug overdoses. But I think a significant cause of it and this is something I’ve gleaned from talking to chiefs of police in the major cities that have been affected is the attacks on the police, the defunding movement, the demonization of police, which has emboldened criminals, particularly young gang members and has induced in some places where the police don’t feel they have the backing of the political officials in the jurisdiction to pull back a bit. And I think that that is one of the major causes and I know the chiefs of police who have to deal with it and the police in the precincts that are in these inner city communities where more and more people are getting shot and killed, that’s what they think too.
Speaker 5: (34:47)
So when you look at those causes do you think when you look at the initial death of George Floyd, the officers that killed him share any of that cause and also just how [inaudible 00:35:03].
William Barr: (35:04)
Well, no, I think the officers who handled that matter the way they did are responsible for the results that they created, but I don’t think that they are responsible for the rioting, I don’t think they’re responsible for the increase in crime. The people who are responsible for that are the people who are doing it.
Speaker 6: (35:23)
William Barr: (35:23)
Speaker 6: (35:28)
[inaudible 00:35:28] and CBS 5. Of all the arrests that were made in this operation can you characterize, are these individuals players in the drug trafficking operations or are some of these arrests users?
William Barr: (35:43)
Yeah, I’ll let the DEA answer that.
Tim Shea: (35:48)
Well, I can say first off that none of them are users. In federal operations we’re not prosecuting or investigating users of drugs. We go after drug trafficking organizations and our goal is to dismantle, destroy those drug trafficking organizations and the people that we’ve arrested range from people associated with the Sinaloa and CGNG cartels all the way down to the violent street gangs that distribute the drugs. So it’s a variety of people that have been part of this operation, but none of them are users.
Speaker 6: (36:19)
[inaudible 00:36:19] demand of the drugs.
Tim Shea: (36:27)
Well that’s a multifaceted response. It can’t be just the justice system. We can do our best in terms of reducing the supply and reducing the violence and going after those that engineer the large amounts that are brought into the United States, other parts of society have to help with the demand reduction. But DEA also has a program where we engage with our state and local partners as well as others to work on education and prevention plans but that’s not our focus that’s others.
William Barr: (37:05)
Speaker 7: (37:05)
I have a question.
William Barr: (37:06)
Speaker 7: (37:13)
[inaudible 00:37:13] cities that were part of operation Crystal Shield, affiliates in Texas and the Dallas Fortworth area are asking for any files pertaining to the operation [inaudible 00:37:35].
Tim Shea: (37:35)
I’m going to ask Chris to deal with that. He has the information on those other cities.
Chris Evans: (37:41)
Sorry. I couldn’t hear the full question, sir.
Speaker 7: (37:43)
Yes sir. So talking about hub cities and specifically the Dallas, Texas and Fortworth area, what are the results [inaudible 00:37:57]?
Chris Evans: (37:58)
Well, I know that our offices there are releasing the information later today in regards to specifics in terms of what we’ve identified, what’s been seized and what’s been moved forward. I think that area, again, as we’ve talked about the transportation hubs and locations, we’ve seen the cartels utilize that area specifically for distribution into the Midwest, distribution into the East coast and so, the efforts we’ve taken there are part of that distribution pipeline, that distribution chain, but the additional information, we can get you those numbers in terms of specifics are from those offices.
William Barr: (38:30)
One more question. Are you raising your hand? No? Okay. All right, thank you.
Speaker 8: (38:37)
Great. Thanks everyone.