I-Team: Battling Drugs at the Border - 8 News NOW

I-Team: Battling Drugs at the Border

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LAS VEGAS -- Las Vegas has always been a target for crime. It's where fugitives hide, scammers try to bilk the innocent and drug traffickers make their mark. 

That mark is growing, especially with methamphetamine which is trafficked from Mexico to the U.S.

The drug trade begins where it ends. The end of America and the beginning of Mexico. The relaxed tourists on one side of the border and a no man's land police state on the other. The two separated by so much and yet so little.

At the border crossing in San Ysidro there are lines, inspections, drugs, dogs and the first skirmish in the war on trafficking.

SLIDESHOW: Battling Meth on the Border

"Twenty percent increase in meth here, seized," said Frank Jaramillo, San Ysidro port director. He oversees the largest land port in the United States with 40,000 cars a day coming and going as well as pesos and dollars.

"It's important that we facilitate the legitimate traveler and the legitimate trade so we both see the benefits for both countries," said Jaramillo.

The focus is and will always be on the illegitimate goods such as the tightly bound packs of drugs hidden everywhere.

"Drive shafts, gas tanks, tires, engine compartments," said Jaramillo. Each license plate is scanned and ran through a database to see if it is stolen or unregistered. The same is done for identification cards. Finding the drugs takes part animal sense, part computer science, and part gut instinct by agents.

Nearly all of the meth in the southwest comes from San Diego and Imperial Counties.

"They've controlled the ephedrine and psuedoephedrine," said DEA Special Agent Stephen Tomaski.

He says the domestic meth labs in basements and backyards are all but eliminated. But demand hasn't waned. "It's one of the more popular drugs, it's one of the more common drugs we see trafficked here in San Diego," said  Tomaski.

Now the trade has ceded control to the cartels like La Familia; violent gangs with lookouts in Mexico and in the states.

"Those super labs get set up in places like Mexico where enforcement is more lax. Where organized crime groups have more leeway," said David Shirk, University of San Diego.

Shirk San Diego Transborder Institute at the university studies the complex relationship between the governments.

The U.S. sends upwards of $400 million a year to Mexico to help combat drugs. American agents have a near permanent presence there; a source of tension.

"Mexico has a very strong historical aversion to U.S. involvement domestically," said Shirk.

While federal agents say Mexico has stepped up enforcement and the intertwined relationship is never better, Shirk's surveys and hands-on experience say otherwise.

"Corruption is still a problem. It's actually a problem on both sides of the border," said Shirk.

Fighting old perceptions -- battling new drugs --  and a history of being the first line of defense. "We've been in existence for well over 200 years," said Jaramillo.

Just this past week, customs and border protection captured more than $1 million in meth meant for America. Busts like this continue to create that cat and mouse game and the cartels try every tactic to get drugs to Las Vegas. The next two nights, we'll focus on how local agencies find and stop the Mexican meth and how they try to win this ongoing drug war.

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