The Mexican Connection | Sports Illustrated | April 24, 2006

Photo by John Moore/Getty Images

Photo by John Moore/Getty Images

From his parked car, Jack, the special agent from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, had a clear view of the entrance to the Empress Hotel in La Jolla, Calif. It was Dec. 14,an overcast day, and Jack’s men were all in place. They were hoping to arrest a key figure in Mexico’s steroid industry, a pharmaceuticals executive and trained veterinarian named Alberto Saltiel-Cohen, who, according to a tip, was staying at the Empress. ¬∂ Jack waited and watched, looking for a man who fit Saltiel-Cohen’s description: 5’8″, slim, early to mid-50s, Latino, with a goatee. Jack himself is trim, his black hair peppered with gray. He is the father of two boys, the younger of whom, an 11-year-old, loves baseball. Like many fathers, Jack (who asked that only his first name be used, to avoid compromising his ongoing investigative work) had watched the 2005 congressional hearings on steroid use in pro sports and heard the stories of young athletes abusing the drugs. But unlike other parents, he didn’t feel helpless against the seeming epidemic. For 21 months he had been the lead agent in Operation Gear Grinder, the largest steroid-trafficking investigation in history. Now he was poised to nab the man whose three companies had allegedly produced more than 70% of the $56 million worth of illegal anabolic steroids seized annually in the United States.

When a man-matching Saltiel-Cohen’s description emerged from the hotel and stopped at the curb, standing there in dark jeans and a leather jacket like any tourist waiting for a cab, Jack felt his heart leap. He glanced once more at a photo of Saltiel-Cohen and gave the order to his men. “Go ahead. Arrest him,” he said into his radio.

Less than an hour later Jack called the person who he believed would take the greatest pleasure in the news of the bust: Don Hooton. In July 2003, Hooton’s 17-year-old son,Taylor, a baseball player at Plano (Texas) West Senior High, committed suicide after four months of using a steroid manufactured by one of Saltiel-Cohen’scompanies. The teen’s much-publicized death had come to represent the dangers of illegal performance enhancers to young athletes.

“Can you come to San Diego?” Jack asked Don. “Something big is coming down.”

DEA agents like Jack say that trying to stop the trafficking of illegal drugs is like trying to catch water from a gushing faucet. No one knows for sure how large the illegal-steroid trade is, but illicit sales to U.S. customers are estimated by some industry insiders to exceed a billion dollars a year. The drugs are everywhere: In a 2004 University of Michigan survey, 42.6% of 12th-graders said steroids were “fairly easy” or “very easy” to get. That survey and one done by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in ’03 put the number of high school seniors who had tried steroids at 3.4% and 4.9%,respectively.

Law enforcement has scarcely attempted to stanch the flow. Other street drugs have been a higher priority. Weak sentencing guidelines have also undercut steroid prosecutions. Other obstacles–from a lack of jurisdiction over foreign manufacturers to the impossibility of screening the tens of millions of packages coming into the U.S. each day–have made fighting the problem difficult. Along the porous Mexican–U.S. border, across which human”mules” carry inexpensive steroids bound for dealers in the U.S.,policing is limited by a lack of manpower and even dogpower; steroids don’t emit the tell-tale odors many other banned drugs do, so canine patrols are ineffective.

The Internet has fueled the growth of the steroid business, enabling anyone, including kids, toorder the drugs from home. The web also gives dealers a new tool for recruiting customers. According to Doug Coleman, a DEA supervisory special agent with expertise in steroid cases, some dealers “troll the Internet like pedophiles. They stake out bodybuilding chat rooms and discussion boards used by kids looking to get stronger.”

Facing the proliferation of these illegal drugs, the U.S. government has finally begun toa ddress the problem, not merely through public-service ads, or the high-profile BALCO case (SI, March 13)–which targeted the selling of steroids to elite athletes–but also with a new willingness to go into the trenches to fight large-scale, grass-roots trafficking. Last month the U.S. Sentencing Commission dramatically toughened the penalties for steroid offenses, putting them on an equal footing with other Schedule III drugs, such as LSD and Vicodin. “A few years ago when you talked to senior law-enforcement people [about combating drug use], they wouldn’t talk about steroids,” says Scott Burns, a deputy director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy and a U.S.representative to the World Anti-Doping Agency, “but now they have made the trafficking of steroids a priority.”

Still, when Operation Gear Grinder was launched two years ago, its goal–to grind to a halt the gears of top companies in the Mexican steroid industry–seemed impossibly ambitious. Could the U.S. government alter the business practices of drug companies based in Mexico, where selling anabolic steroids over the counter islegal, and shut off the supply of those drugs heading north? And even if it succeeded in doing so, would that be enough to make even a tiny dent in America’s steroid market?

The answer, it turned out, would be yes on both counts.

The most successful crackdown ever on performance-enhancing drugs did not begin as a hunt for steroids. It started with a probe called Operation TKO, the goal of which was to cut off the supply of ketamine, a dangerous hallucinogen popular with ravers. In 2003, as a result of TKO, U.S. and Mexican authorities shutdown a Mexico City–based company, Laboratorios Ttokkyo, which produced 80%-to-90% of the ketamine found in the U.S.

Jack worked on the operation and noted that Ttokkyo had also manufactured veterinary steroids,which are most commonly used to hasten the growth of beef cattle. What caugh this attention was that many of the steroids were sold in pet stores and farmacias (pharmacies) in Mexican border towns and tourist destinations like Cancun and Ensenada–and were bought almost exclusively for human use, largely by Americans. (Mexico’s veterinary-steroid industry stepped up production for use by humans to meet the demand created after the Anabolic Steroid Control Act of 1990 toughened penalties for illicit steroid sales within the U.S.) Aware of the growing steroid problem, Jack wondered what other companies might be making or distributing supposed veterinary steroids that were really aimed at bodybuilders and young athletes.

Jack’s partner, Bob, the department’s prescription-drug expert, sent investigators to visit all eight of the DEA’s domestic labs, where steroids captured in the U.S. are sent to be analyzed and, ultimately, destroyed. Bob and his team painstakingly pulled every steroid vial and file, and they created a database for the origin of each drug. “What surprised us was that every lab, whether it was Chicago, New York, or Miami, had steroids from Mexico,” Jack says. Further analysis showed that 82% of the steroids seized in the U.S. were made south of the border. “It was shocking,” says Jack. “We thought we’d see more from Asia or Europe.”

The target was too tempting to pass up. “In the drug game, if you make a one percent difference, that’s phenomenal,” says assistant U.S. attorney Laura Duffy,who attended the March 2004 meeting of agents, prosecutors and others at which Operation Gear Grinder was laid out. “What got us motivated is that we thought there was a chance we could make an 82 percent difference.”

Not that he needed it, but Jack found more motivation in the summer of ’05 while watching TV with his sons. Flipping through the channels one Sunday night, he stopped on 60 Minutes, a show he normally never watched. Don Hooton was on camera telling correspondent Jim Stewart about Taylor’s suicide and lamenting that steroids were so easily available to kids. “I have not seen an interest in taking responsibility for this problem and taking active steps to stop it,” Hooton said.

“I wanted to reach through the TV,” Jack says, “to grab him and say, ‘Don’t worry.We’re going to do something.'”

The charges the U.S. Attorney’s office hoped to pin on the eight targeted companies and on owners like Saltiel-Cohen were plain enough: conspiracy to import anabolic steroids into the U.S., conspiracy to distribute anabolic steroids and conspiracy to launder money obtained by illicit acts. To prove these felonies,however, Jack and his team first had to establish that the owners, managers and distributors knew that the steroids were destined for the U.S.

It was obvious to the DEA that the companies’ websites were geared toward U.S. users. Many of the sites were available only in English, complete with American flags on their home pages. “The websites are how they made a lot of their money,” Jack says, “but we also felt that was their Achilles’ heel.”

The DEA set up a website of its own, bio-power-meds.com, purportedly backed by a distributor flush with cash and ready to serve as a conduit to customers in the states. Informants also posed as distributors looking to buy large quantities of steroids. Sites such as anabolicsclub.com and mexicansteroidsales.com allegedly sold steroids to the feds from Saltiel-Cohen’s three companies, Animal Power, Denkall and Quality Vet, and shipped them to P.O. boxes set up by the DEA. In all, agents seized or tracked some 360,000 doses of anabolic steroids. IRS investigators tracked the payments.

DEA agents and informants communicated with sellers using BlackBerrys, and the e-mails we rerouted to an FBI Regional Computer Forensics Laboratory to be indexed as evidence. The DEA also targeted e-mail accounts it suspected were being used by distributors and set up wiretaps. Transcribers marveled at how well-spoken the alleged traffickers were. “They are used to drug suspects who use a lot of slang,” Jack says, “but these men were proper, they were businessmen, they were highly intelligent.”

Days after watching Don Hooton tell 60 Minutes the story of his son’s death, Jack called Hooton at his home in Plano. He introduced himself and told him he had watched the segment with his two boys, saying, “It was like you were talking through the TV screen to me. And I wanted you to know that I’m listening.” Later Jack told him, “The DEA in San Diego is working on a case. You’re not going to see results any time soon. But believe me, we are as committed as you are. And I just want you to know, I will work my ass off for this cause.”

Jack continued to check on Hooton every other month, and over the next year and a half, a friendship developed. Jack listened as Don talked about the Taylor Hooton Foundation, which he had formed in an effort to educate kids and parents about steroid use. He heard Don’s frustration over the investigation into Taylor’s death. The probe had stalled, even though police had identified a local teenager they believe had supplied Taylor with steroids. Don was also upset with officials at Plano West Senior High; he felt they weren’t acknowledging the steroid problem at the school.

Jack never gave in to the temptation to cheer Hooton up with updates on Gear Grinder, and Hooton found a way to satisfy his curiosity without pressing. “I know it’s inappropriate, Jack, to ask you guys what you are doing or how you are doing, but tell me one thing. Are you smiling?” Don asked during one call.

“Yeah, I’m smiling,” Jack said.

“Good,”said Hooton. “That’s all I need to know.”

Jack eventually tacked a photo on his cubicle wall of the vial of steroids found in Taylor’s room. Taylor had wrapped the vial carefully and hidden it behind a speaker. He had used the drug without his parents’ knowledge, and, when he tried to quit, became so engulfed by depression that he hanged himself in his room, leaving a note that read, “I love you guys. I’m sorry about everything.”

In early 2005 the DEA received the vial, which contained Deca QV 300, or nandralone, one of Quality Vets’ most popular products. That drug, the DEA says, was one of Saltiel-Cohen’s biggest money-makers.

To prove that the manufacturers and distributors of the steroids were aware that humans were using them in the U.S., the DEA first turned to the Olympic lab at UCLA, to the scientists who first identified THG, the designer steroid at the center of the BALCO scandal. Doctors there determined that the Mexican drugs were exactly what athletes would take, and were in the dosages that those users would want.

Further debunking the notion that these were produced as veterinary drugs, the DEA found that some 80% of the steroids were being shipped to the Baja California region, which Bob found has only 1% of Mexico’s cattle. With the help of Dr. Scott Stanley, an associate professor at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine (at which Saltiel-Cohen, ironically, had done graduate studies), investigators marshaled even more evidence. Some of the seized products contained more than one steroid, a practice known as “stacking,” which is common among human users but has no veterinary purpose. And often the instructions were blatantly wrong. “There were products where the instructions suggested two times and up to 25 times the recommended doses for animals,” Stanley says.

Stanley also told the DEA that the volume and variety of products was excessive. “In the U.S.the use of steroids on animals is not a popular treatment anymore,” Stanley says. Only five types of anabolic steroids are used on animals in the U.S.; the Mexican companies were manufacturing 17 types.

On Dec. 14, when Don Hooton received the call asking him to come to San Diego, he knew only, per the usual code, that Jack was smiling. It wasn’t until Jack picked him up at the airport the next day that he was filled in on the fruits of Gear Grinder.

“Jack tells me, ‘Hooton, we are going to shut them down.’ Then he tells me about Saltiel-Cohen, and I am going nutso inside,” says Hooton. “Jack had on a baby blue suit, dressed like a million bucks, and he’s got this piece on his belt, a big black gun in a holster, and I’m going, ‘Damn, this is for real. They’ve just arrested the biggest guy of them all.'”

Jack took Hooton to the press conference to announce the indictment of Saltiel-Cohen and 22 others–owners, managers and distributors–on a variety of charges, including conspiracy to import steroids and money laundering. After the announcement, Hooton and Jack were sitting at a table as reporters lingered and asked follow-up questions, when Jack looked at his watch. It was 1:45. “How would you like to watch him be arraigned?” he asked Hooton.

Minutes later the two were in the courtroom as Saltiel-Cohen was ushered in. Hooton was struck by how distinguished Saltiel-Cohen looked, even in a prison jumpsuit. “He looked just like a business guy,” Hooton says. “He looked like an Enron perp.”

Saltiel-Cohenwould soon be dubbed Narco Vet by the Mexican press. After watching him plead not guilty, Hooton and Jack returned to the DEA office, where agent after agent congratulated Jack on the biggest bust of his career.

In the days after the arrests bodybuilders and weightlifters posted messages on U.S.–based websites like elitefitness.com, expressing concern that supply lines would be cut off for the popular steroids produced by companies like Saltiel-Cohen’s Quality Vet. “This is the worst news I’ve heard in a long time,” wrote ryan04. “R.I.P.-QV … you’ve been a friend to us all.”

Their concerns proved justified. In the ensuing months, all eight companies either halted or significantly cut back on the production of steroids, and seizures of Mexican steroids smuggled into the U.S. dropped significantly. The Mexican government,which had cooperated with the DEA investigation, says it is investigating money-laundering violations by the companies on its side of the border. Meanwhile, working off a list of more than 2,000 people in the U.S. who had done business, directly or indirectly, with the eight companies, DEA agentsknocked on roughly 500 doors across the country, making a handful of arrests and issuing warnings to stay out of the steroid trade.

While 18 of those indicted in Gear Grinder remain at large (four others are in custody and have pleaded not guilty), Saltiel-Cohen sits in a federal detention center in San Diego, awaiting a motion hearing in mid-June. “My client has been cooperating with the government and is negotiating a plea agreement,” says his lawyer, Merle Schneidewind.

In Tijuana,meanwhile, business is hurting at many farmacias, especially those specializing in veterinary drugs. At Farmàcia Veterinaría Revolución, which stands only a few yards from El Arco Reloj Monumental, Tijuana’s version of the St. Louis Gateway Arch, a 100-milligram vial of Winstrol manufactured by Quality Vetcosts $185, up from $120 before the indictments. Ralph, a twenty-something employee who mans the counter, explains the hike: “We don’t have much left and don’t know if we can get more. If someone else starts making it, we will stay open. If not, who knows.”

At a nearby farmàcia, Granero El Toro, owner Nino Velàzquez says that 30% of his business came from selling anabolic steroids from the eight companies. “Right here in [central Tijuana], four veterinarian pharmacies have already closed because 95 percent of their business was anabolic sales,” he says. “They’ve run out of stuff to sell. The ones that are still open are running out fast. I know eight vet pharmacies that have closed in Mexico so far–five in Tijuana, one in Nuevo Laredo and two in Ciudad Juàrez.”

Who knows howlong the impact will last? New labs are rumored to be springing up already in Mexico. Anabolic steroids are also available through the Internet from dozens of other countries, including Australia, India, Russia, Thailand and Turkey. Every known steroid is for sale–as are ones not yet known. A Chinese company contacted by an SI reporter last year offered not only to sell him THG, but also to concoct a variation of it that would be undetectable to drug testers.

One critic of Operation Gear Grinder, William Llewellyn, author of the exhaustive steroid guidebook Anabolics 2006, says, “Nobody wants kids taking steroids, but all this is going to do is drive the market further underground. You’ll see more counterfeit [steroids] and more tainted products, which can cause infections or worse.” Indeed, there have already been reports of counterfeits showing up in Mexico. “One new product came out last week,” says Velàzquez, the farmàcia owner, “but it looks like a bad imitation. It looks like it was cooked up in someone’s house.”

The U.S. end ofthe steroid pipeline also is difficult to police. Personal trainers and gym junkies continue to push the drugs at fitness clubs. Some of them expand their territory and become “remailers,” who are paid to receive packages from foreign websites or smugglers and redirect them to clients within the U.S.Those efforts are designed to confuse law enforcement and protect buyers from being directly linked to the original source of the drugs.

Kids often end up as part of the distribution chain. Once a youngster is using steroids he can be easily converted into a foot soldier for his supplier. “The kid is fronted some steroids he can’t afford,” says DEA agent Doug Coleman. “What happens when you can’t pay? You are now a distributor because you need to payoff the debt. Next thing you know these kids are selling to their buddies.”

Though the challenges remain daunting, Operation Gear Grinder proved that victories are at least possible in the fight against steroids. To celebrate, Jack and Hooton sat in a Mexican restaurant near San Diego after the indictments were announced, sharing a pitcher of frozen margaritas.

“Don, I don’t know why I watched 60 Minutes that night,” Jack said, suggesting it was fate. The two men talked for hours, about Gear Grinder and their families. When Hooton tried to thank him for his work in the fight against steroids, Jack waved him off. “I was just doing my part, while you do your part,” he said.♦