Spend enough time talking to lawyers who've been in practice for decades on Guam and you'll hear stories of the 1970s and '80s when, on occasion, drug defendants waiting outside the courtroom would leave syringes on the floor behind them.
Back then, heroin was the scourge of Guam. Today, no one doubts it's "ice."
As documented in case after court case, the lives of many island residents – and those of their families – have been destroyed by crystal methamphetamine, commonly known as "ice." The fleeting pleasure from a hit can last hours, before it eventually destroys the user's life and devastates his or her loved ones.
On Dec. 7 in the District Court of Guam, an admitted meth dealer awaiting sentencing had his conditional release revoked after testing positive for meth three times in the prior month.
"The drug was more powerful than his ability to say, 'No,'" Assistant U.S. Attorney Fred Black said at the time.
The addict, 47-year-old Joaquin Patrick Ulloa Rosario, was ordered back to prison. In the courtroom, he left behind his young daughter and a wife struggling to recover from a back operation.
Backlog of meth cases
The craving for meth has been linked to many of the island's crimes. In 2017, it seemed that not a week went by without a report of some meth-related crime, or a punishment being meted out in court for a meth user or dealer. The federal and local courts are clogged with a backlog of meth cases.
At a news conference in February, Drug Enforcement Administration acting Resident Agent-in-Charge Kirk Williamson told The Guam Daily Post that 95 percent of the drug cases that go through Guam's federal court involve meth as the primary – if not sole – controlled substance.
"Over the past five years or so, the prosecution of drug-related offenses has been close to a majority of the work we do at this office," said then-U.S. Attorney Alicia Limtiaco, who is now running for lieutenant governor. In 2012, only 26 percent of the cases handled by the U.S. Attorney's Office were drug-related – now it's nearly 50 percent, she said.
Crime and corruption
Meth dealers and users pack Guam's prison, where their grip on inmates has even promoted the corruption of its guards.
In February, Department of Corrections Officer Ronald Artero Pereira was arrested on a charge of meth possession after he reported for duty at the Adult Correctional Facility in Mangilao. A shakedown by DOC Internal Affairs caught him with meth concealed in a pack of cigarettes. More meth meant for inmates was found in his car. In March, Pereira admitted to using meth and distributing it to the inmates he was charged with guarding.
It was the tip of the iceberg that eventually implicated six other DOC officers in a still-ongoing prison contraband case.
Pereira, 48, asked for leniency, citing depression following a breakup with his girlfriend. At his sentencing hearing on Oct. 25, defense attorney Jeffery Moots said Pereira's solution to his depression was to turn to meth.
"Had he not been addicted, I doubt he'd be here today," Moots said.
Pereira was sentenced to three years and 10 months in a federal prison.
Crime and punishment
Not all dealers and users are treated the same.
On Dec. 12, a confessed drug dealer, believed responsible for shipping more than 100 pounds of crystal meth to Guam, was given a minimum sentence of 20 years in prison. He was facing the possibility of life in federal prison.
Forty-year-old Julian Gerald Borja Robles was given credit for the four years and 10 months he had already served in jail, and he was allowed to spend Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with his family before being remanded to a federal prison in the states next year.
Chief Judge Frances Tydingco-Gatewood of the District Court of Guam acknowledged she was moved by the appeal made by Robles' oldest sister, Zena Duenas, who made a tearful bid for leniency.
On Aug. 15, visiting Grammy Award-winning singer Yvonne Elliman-Alexander came to Guam to perform at a fundraiser for Mount Carmel School. She and her husband, Allen Bernard Alexander, were arrested at the airport when a K-9 unit took an interest in their luggage. Inside, authorities found about 3.5 grams of meth and a glass pipe.
The pair pleaded guilty to drug possession. Elliman-Alexander said the drug gave her the courage to perform.
Their attorney, Mike Phillips, asked for the couple to be allowed to return to Hawaii to await sentencing, so that Elliman-Alexander could care for her elderly mother. Guam's attorney general objected, arguing all criminal defendants should be treated the same, and said the couple should be held accountable on Guam.
Judge Vernon Perez of the Superior Court of Guam allowed Elliman-Alexander and her husband to return to Hawaii, on probation, subject to drug testing, before their sentencing scheduled for next March.
The promise of astronomical profits temp dealers to smuggle meth into Guam.
"It's economics," said Lt. Gov. Ray Tenorio during an Oct. 25 news conference. He pointed out that the price per gram on Guam is much higher than it is in the states. Dealers "can buy it for $60 or $80 stateside, and sell it for up to $400 or $500 a gram here on Guam," he said.
At that same news conference, Assistant Inspector Kevin Rho of the U.S Postal Inspection Service said federal and local authorities had cooperated in the seizure of more than 60 pounds of meth at U.S. post offices on Guam since the start of this year alone.
Rho called methamphetamine "a growing problem" on island and "higher than normal" compared to stateside jurisdictions. "It's a very serious problem for Guam," saying it's "literally ruining lives."
Seaport a main point of entry
Guam Customs and Quarantine Agency Director James McDonald told the Post in October that more meth is coming into Guam through the island's commercial port than through any other point of entry.
He said law enforcement often gets to the cargo too late, after the drugs have already been removed. In one case, he said, "100 pounds of meth was taken out of the dashboard" of an imported car.
There were other incidents as well, in which the smugglers put drugs in the trunk of vehicles shipped through the port, he acknowledged.
"There's all kinds of horror stories that's happening down there," McDonald said.