Journalista Presents

Drugs in Los Angeles

It’s “like dancing with the devil,” the undercover agent told me right after I watched him and his team arrest two Sinaloa Cartel affiliates and seize $370,000 worth of hard drugs at a house in southern California.

Los Angeles is the drug bottleneck that bleeds into other parts of the country, its population and proximity to Mexico making it a significant hub of hard narcotics–methamphetamine, cocaine, and heroin–on their way to regions as far as the East Coast and Australia. In this one city, you can follow the hands that the drugs pass through as they go from top cartel affiliates all the way down to a user on the streets.

It’s “like dancing with the devil,” the undercover agent tells me after I watched him and his team arrest two Sinaloa cartel affiliates and seize $370,000 worth of hard drugs at a house in southern California. The agent puts away up to 60 people a year working for the Los Angeles Interagency Metropolitan Police Apprehension Crime Task Force, or L.A. IMPACT, the largest domestic task force in the United States that comprises 48 federal, state and local agencies whose primary mission is to target major drug trafficking. His work is crucial in busting drug traffickers because he uses his connections to discreetly corner major traffickers—usually, dealers who take direct orders from the cartel’s leaders in Mexico. Hence, “dancing with the devil.”

Los Angeles is a bottleneck that flows drugs into other parts of the country. L.A.’s dense population and proximity to Mexico has made it a significant hub of hard narcotics—particularly methamphetamine, cocaine and heroin—on the way to regions as widespread as the East Coast and Australia. In this one city, you can follow the hands drugs pass through as they go from top cartel affiliates down to users on the streets. Over the course of six months, I tracked this very cycle to uncover the secret players and true costs of drug trafficking for Playboy’s original docu-news series, Dope City.

L.A. IMPACT doesn’t go after small-timers or drug users. They’re more interested in major trafficking organizations, which make an estimated $64 billion a year from sales in the United States alone. The goal is to track and seize drugs from cartel kingpins and major distributors before they trickle down to low-level dealers. “That’s a daily lifestyle right here, dealing with cartels,” says David King, director of L.A. IMPACT. “The average seizure at L.A. IMPACT is $150,000.”

Civilians who get paid to set up successful busts play a big role in the fight against trafficking. Called confidential informants, they’re paid based on the value of the bust they coordinate. For the savviest players, this can mean a lot of money. In episode one, “The Assembly Line,” I meet an informant who made more than $40,000 in four days.

I realize that we’re not going to stop all the drugs that are here because the money is so big.

–L.A. IMPACT detective Fernando Mata

But despite the work of L.A. IMPACT, their informants and other law enforcement agencies, the business of the cartels is thriving. “The market’s just so flooded,” says Agent Carlos Mendoza. “That is telling us that we’re not stopping it.” He reveals that the wholesale price of methamphetamine has dropped drastically from around $9,000 per pound just a few years ago to around $2,400 per pound today. At that price, people can get high for as little as $2 a hit—cheaper than a McDonald’s hamburger.

One issue with controlling the flow of drugs is that drugs like cocaine do not discriminate. Instead, it just makes the rounds through socioeconomic classes in different forms. “The older crowd likes the crack, the younger crowd the powder,” explains an Orange County drug dealer as he shows me a piece of crack cocaine from his five-ounce stash in “Episode 3: The Street Dealer.” “These are grams—$70 a gram. I can give four or five people one ounce a piece, they pay me in two days.” That equals to approximately $9,900 for his five-ounce stash alone.

The deadliest drug, though, is heroin. From 2013 to 2014, more people died of heroin or opioid overdose in the Los Angeles region than the total number of U.S. military deaths in 13 years of warfare in Afghanistan. And there’s no sign of the heroin epidemic letting up. In the last episode of Dope City, “The User,” I meet a random guy on the street who’s able to procure a $10 sample of black tar in less than 30 minutes. The use of heroin is closely tied to prescription pills, as the majority of its users start off with the latter.

“The older crowd like the crack, the younger crowd the powder. These are grams–$70 a gram.”

–Orange County drug dealer

When it comes to treating drug addiction and opioid abuse, the most common method is rehabilitation in treatment centers. There are, however, no officials ways to measure the success of an individual’s rehabilitation, making it difficult to quantify just how effective these centers and their programs are. Many programs are also out-of-reach for those without money or insurance. One luxury center in Los Angeles’s Laurel Canyon neighborhood that I visit in “Episode 4: The User” costs $50,000 a month.

The meth market is inundated and still highly profitable. Prescription opioid addiction is fueling a demand for their heroin. Despite supposed state-of-the-art treatment facilities, people are dying from overdoses in record numbers and families are ruined. Altogether, these numbers indicate that the Mexican cartels are winning the war on drugs.

“We’re not going to stop all the drugs that are here because the money is so big,” says L.A. IMPACT detective Fernando Mata, whose own daughter is addicted to heroin and has been through 19 treatment programs. “But I know that if I’m responsible or connected to 20 or 30 pounds of methamphetamine or heroin off the street, that’s a lot of people that that drug never made it to.”

Whatever the political inclinations are, his is a touching and personal motivation. Still, it raises the question—is there a better and more effective way to battle the negative effects of the drug war? Playboy investigates in Dope City, presented by Journalista.


Full Episodes


Beginning at the top of the cartel hierarchy in Los Angeles, L.A. IMPACT goes after a Sinaloa Cartel stash house in southern California, which turns out to be more than just a safehouse for drugs.


A confidential informant leads the L.A. IMPACT team on a tense mission to a methamphetamine wholesaler in Los Angeles.


A reformed drug dealer and felon still harboring deep resentment against the severity of drug laws against certain social classes shares a bit of his past life through an old accomplice in Orange County, who shows off a sample of cocaine, his bestseller.


The deadliest of the main hard narcotics from Mexican cartels is heroin—which the correspondent unexpectedly finds from a homeless man on the streets of east L.A., a journey that ultimately ends at a luxury rehab and raises questions about the future of drug treatment and efficacy of America’s drug policy.