Drug traffickers are disguising massive amounts of meth as a liquid to smuggle it into the US from Mexico.
Dissolved in a solution, the meth is sealed in tequila bottles and detergent containers to fool border guards and the CHP. Once deep in California's Central Valley, meth cooks convert it into crystal form.
While the DEA has chased the highly toxic super-labs south of the border, smaller conversion labs are popping up domestically in neighborhoods, such as one in Fresno where a house exploded two years ago. People inside the home had sealed it tightly so the tale-tell fumes didn't give them away, so instead the fumes kept building up like steam in an overloaded boiler. When it finally blew, the air conditioning unit rocketed into a nearby neighbor's yard.
"These guys, they don't have Ph.D.s in chemistry," said Sgt. Matt Alexander of the Fresno County Sheriff's Office. "They're focused on not getting caught."
Agents in Central California have been seeing more liquid meth in the past few years.
In late 2012, a CHP officer pulled over a 20-year-old man on the I-5 who seemed nervous. The officer found 15 bottles in the trunk full of dissolved meth but labeled as Mexican tequila.
The man pleaded guilty to drug trafficking and was sentenced to 46 months in a federal prison.
Three men were indicted in late 2013 after a drug task force found 12 gallons of liquid meth in a Fresno house along with 42 pounds of the drug ready for sale, four guns and 5,000 rounds of ammunition.
And earlier this year, officers raiding a Madera home found a liquid meth conversion lab, along with 176 pounds of crystal meth with a street value over $1 million.
The Mexican super-labs are notoriously toxic to people and the environment, but the liquid meth conversion labs in California's Central Valley are more dangerous, according to Mike Prado, head of the US Dept of Homeland Security's Fresno office. Agents have found labs in densely populated apartment buildings and foreclosed homes in quiet neighborhoods where children play on the street.
In the conversion process, cooks evaporate off the liquid and use highly combustible chemicals such as acetone to make crystals. The fumes are trapped inside. "A spark can turn this into a fireball," Prado said.
Central California's interstates and proximity to Mexico make it an attractive distribution hub for cartels, officials say. John Donelly, former head of the DEA's Fresno office, said agents all over the country have tracked meth to California's Central Valley. "We're the source point for Seattle, Portland, Alaska and as far east as the Carolinas," Donnelly said.
Not all the meth travelling north makes its way to Central California.
Two men were arrested last month in San Bernardino when investigators found a conversion lab, 206 pounds of crystal meth and 250 gallons of the liquid capable of producing 1,250 pounds of crystals. Last year, a 16-year-old boy was stopped at the crossing near San Diego. He volunteered to take "a big sip" to convince inspectors the liquid he had was only apple juice, not meth. The teenager began screaming in pain and died within hours.
Eric Olson, a Latin America researcher at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington D.C., said he witnessed agents seize liquid meth disguised in soda bottles during a 2012 tour of the border crossing at Laredo, Texas.
Liquid meth is just the latest innovation for transporting drugs for profit. Smugglers have used tunnels, submarines, drones, and human mules.
"There's no end to the creativity to getting the drug to market when there's demand," Olson said of the turn to liquid meth.