Pubdate: Sun, 28 Nov 2010
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Page: A01, Front Page
Copyright: 2010 The Washington Post Company
Authors: William Booth and Anne-Marie O'Connor, Washington Post Staff Writer
Note: Researcher Gabriela Martinez contributed to this report.
Bookmark: (Methamphetamine)


VERACRUZ, MEXICO - Exploiting loopholes in the global economy, 
Mexican crime syndicates are importing mass quantities of the cold 
medicines and common chemicals used to manufacture methamphetamine - 
turning Mexico into the No. 1 source for all meth sold in the United 
States, law enforcement agents say.

Nearly three years ago, the Mexican government appeared on the verge 
of controlling the sale of chemicals used to make the drugs, but the 
syndicates have since moved to the top of the drug trade.

Cartels have quickly learned to use dummy corporations and false 
labeling and take advantage of lax customs enforcement in China, 
India and Bangladesh to smuggle tons of the pills into Mexico for 
conversion into methamphetamine. Ordinary cold, flu and allergy 
medicine used to make methamphetamine - pills banned in Mexico and 
restricted in the United States - are still widely available in many countries.

In the past 18 months, Mexican armed forces have raided more than 325 
sophisticated factories capable of producing a million pounds of 
potent methamphetamine a year. Seizures of Mexican methamphetamine 
along the southwest border have doubled.

"As hard as everyone is working to stop it, the stuff is just going 
to continue to flow in massive quantities," said Michael Braun, 
former chief of operations for the Drug Enforcement Administration 
and now with Spectre Group International, a security firm.

In a typical scenario, United Nations investigators say, a legitimate 
pharmaceutical company in India exports cold pills to Dubai in the 
United Arab Emirates, where they are falsely labeled as herbal 
supplements and shipped to Belize, and then to Veracruz by cargo container.

"Mexico-based trafficking groups have shown tremendous resilience in 
getting around the precursor chemical prohibitions and controls," 
said Special Agent Alex Dominguez in the DEA Office of Diversion 
Control. "They are currently pursuing very sophisticated smuggling 
techniques. They are trafficking ephedrine-type medicines, just like 
you would smuggle any high-value contraband such as cocaine or heroin."

Legal Ingredients

Ever resourceful, Mexican cartels have begun to manufacture 
methamphetamine using legally obtained ingredients - such as 
phenylacetic acid, or PAA, a honey-smelling chemical used in 
everything from perfumes, soaps and body lotions to food flavoring 
and antibiotics.

Traffickers prefer methamphetamine made from cold tablets because it 
is more potent, but they are increasingly relying on PAA, as 
resilient Mexican cartels revert to old-school recipes developed by 
U.S. motorcycle gangs in the 1970s that use phenylacetic acid and its 
chemical cousins.

At least half of all the methamphetamine seized along the border in 
the past year was made with precursor chemicals such as phenylacetic 
acid, U.S. agents told The Washington Post.

"For the cartels, the great thing about meth is it is not bound by 
geography," a senior U.S. law enforcement agent with direct knowledge 
of the Mexican drug syndicates who spoke on the condition of 
anonymity because of security concerns. "You can buy the precursor 
chemicals off the shelf. You can order them on the telephone."

Mexican mafias have quickly replaced American mom-and-pop domestic 
producers, who use soft drink bottles to "shake and bake" a few 
ounces of meth in motel rooms and rural slums, according to DEA officials.

The Chinese government concedes that it has no idea how many cold 
tablets its state-run companies sell each year. The Mexican 
government is unsure how much phenylacetic acid is used by legitimate 
manufacturers, such as Proctor & Gamble, and how much is diverted to 
the meth labs.

Mexican cartels began to produce ever larger amounts of 
methamphetamine over the past decade. But under heavy pressure from 
the United States, Mexico three years ago banned the import and sale 
of cold, flu and allergy medicines containing ephedrine and 
pseudoephedrine, the most sought-after chemicals used to make 
methamphetamine and ecstasy. Most Central American countries 
implemented their own bans.

Meth production in Mexico plummeted. In 2007, the military busted 33 
clandestine laboratories and 51 in 2008, compared with the 215 it 
uncovered in 2009. Street prices spiked and purity dropped in the 
United States, an indication of relative scarcity. U.S. diplomats and 
law enforcement officials hailed Mexico's ephedrine ban as a major success.

But Mexican methamphetamine is surging again. After several years of 
declining production, the 2010 threat assessment by the Justice 
Department's National Drug Intelligence Center said Mexico was again 
"the primary source of methamphetamine consumed in the United 
States." A companion report was not released for fear of embarrassing 
Mexican President Felipe Calderon on the eve of his trip to Washington in May.

A Tough Opponent

U.S. diplomats praise Mexico for its fight against methamphetamine. 
At the port in Veracruz, where more than 1,700 ships arrive each 
year, disgorging 720,000 containers on the docks, Mexican marines and 
customs agents work side by side searching for contraband. The metal 
boxes are scanned with gamma rays and X-rays and sniffed by dogs. 
Suspicious cargo is unloaded, blue plastic drums opened and the 
chemicals inside tested.

"But if there are 2,000 containers a day and you can manage to get in 
just one or two containers with narcotics, that's a lot. That is 
tons," said a Mexican navy captain at the port who spoke on the 
condition his name not be used because of security concerns.

Masked men kidnapped the former director of customs in Veracruz, 
Francisco Serrano, in June 2009 as he was implementing new scrutiny 
measures. There have been no arrests, no ransom demands; Serrano vanished.

On the black market, a single allergy pill containing ephedrine can 
sell for $2.50 in Guatemala. A kilogram of bulk ephedrine from China 
- - about 2.2 pounds of powder - goes for $10,000 on the Mexican black market.

In January, Mexican authorities found three tons of ephedrine 
concealed in fire extinguishers coming through the port of 
Manzanilla. In February, agents stopped 120,000 pseudoephedrine pills 
in Guatemala en route to Mexico City airport. In April, Mexican 
marines in Veracruz found four tons of ephedrine in jute bags that 
came from India by way of Europe.

According to investigators with the U.N. International Narcotics 
Control Board, numerous African countries import quantities of cold 
remedies that far exceed legitimate medical needs. In Ethiopia, for 
example, Mexican traffickers and their middlemen used bogus documents 
to import more than 12 tons of ephedrine. Similar diversions have 
been uncovered in Argentina, where ephedrine cold pills are still 
legal. U.N. investigators say most of the suspicious shipments have 
Mexico as their final destination.

Local Victims

As Mexico fights the flow of methamphetamine to the United States, 
the drug is ravaging citizens here.

At a rehab center in Apatzingan in the western state of Michoacan, a 
meth-producing hub, two dozen men huddle in a converted garage, 
sleeping on bunks, sharing meals, making furniture. They were all 
addicted to drugs, most to methamphetamine.

Francisco Rodriguez is 53 years old but looks in his 70s. Meth almost 
killed him. His decalcified bones are so brittle that he walks with a 
cane. He has lost his teeth. He left his wife, his children, his law career.

"I came to Apatzingan on vacation and tried the local crystal meth. I 
became an addict instantly," he said. "The streets here were filled 
with people who looked crazy."

Rodriquez said the local mafia - La Familia de Michoacan - blocked 
all street sales in the city a few years ago. The cartel said it was 
protecting the people from a scourge. Mexican law enforcement agents 
confirm that La Familia ordered a halt in local use, though they say 
it was a cynical ploy, a bit of propaganda.

"Now if you use it, they'll kill you," Rodriguez said. "Now it is 
just for the foreigners."
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake