Tracknum: 11872.201108171232.p7hcw6jy011823 Pubdate: Fri, 5 Aug 2011 Source: Wall Street Journal (US) Copyright: 2011 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Contact: http://www.wsj.com/ Details: http://www.mapinc.org/media/487 Author: Nicholas Casey MEXICO ELBOWS INTO U.S. METH TRADE Cartels Boost Mass Production Of The Deadly Synthetic Drug, As U.S. Consumption Rebounds MEXICO CITY-Mexican drug cartels already control the bulk of cocaine, marijuana and heroin that enters the U.S. market. Now, they are fast becoming the kings of methamphetamines, the deadly synthetic drug that is making a comeback in the U.S., say Mexican and U.S. officials. Mexico's military has uncovered 103 clandestine methamphetamine labs during the first six months of this year-a 25% jump over the same period last year. In 2010, a record 5,588 kilograms (6.2 tons) of meth were seized at the U.S. border with Mexico, up from 3,602 kilos the year before. Almost that much has been seized so far this year. Until recently, much of the production of synthetic drugs has taken place in the U.S. But while the number of clandestine meth labs in the U.S. has grown, they are shrinking in size, suggesting that the U.S. labs aren't competing any more with Mexico for mass production of the drug, experts say. Last year, more than 96% of U.S. raids found labs that could only produce less than two ounces of meth, the U.S. government says, amounts that suggest personal use. In Mexico, meanwhile, the cartels are ramping up production to an industrial level. In late July, the Mexican army discovered a massive warehouse in the central city of Queretaro stacked with 839 tons of chemicals used to make synthetic drugs, including meth and ecstasy. Pictures from the scene showed gunny sacks heaped as high as the soldiers that guarded them; a forklift stood nearby. That same month, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration announced the results of a 20-month operation against Mexico's La Familia cartel which to date has captured nearly 1,300 kilos of meth that the group smuggled in to the U.S. The street value of the drug varies widely depending on purity and where it is sold, but one gram of meth can be valued at $100 or more, according to the United Nations, suggesting hundreds of millions of dollars could be at stake. The growth of synthetic drugs suggests they are becoming an increasingly important source of cash for cartels, as they wage bloody turf battles in Mexico that have claimed an estimated 41,000 lives since 2006. "The future of drugs lies with the synthetics," said Antonio Mazzitelli of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in Mexico. Just last year his office identified 41 new synthetic drugs in circulation world-wide, many of them produced in Mexico. Methamphetamines is one of the older of these synthetic drugs, known for more than a century. But use spread throughout the U.S. after experimental drug users in the 1960s popularized the processing of legal drugs into more powerful substances. Today meth is usually smoked or snorted, injected or swallowed-with high rates of addiction and fatality. While there is little demand for meth in Mexico, interest is creeping up again in the U.S. after falling in 2006 when the government put restrictions on the chemicals used to make it. Now, there are an estimated half-million U.S. meth users, according to U.S. government surveys. The Mexican army says the meth surge is a consequence of its own crackdown on drug production which in recent years focused on crop destruction for marijuana. Some producers have moved into meth, which can be produced more discreetly in countryside labs, in residential neighborhoods or in warehouses sitting in plain sight. "The rise in captures of clandestine laboratories for the production of synthetic drugs is due to the fact that they can be produced in only a few hours with higher dividends, unlike marijuana whose harvest takes months and requires more manpower," said a Mexican military spokesman. In 2005, the U.S. Congress placed restrictions on the sale of pseudoephedrine, the precursor drug for meth used in allergy medicines, making it difficult to produce large quantities of meth. Oregon and Mississippi now require a prescription for pseudoephedrine, which has led to the decline of laboratories in those states. Mexico has tried to stem production through its own laws, going one step beyond the U.S. in banning pseudoephedrine entirely in 2007. But a report leaked to media last year from the U.S. Justice Department said the laws had done little good as drug traffickers still could "circumvent the government" to obtain the drug. A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment on the report. The Mexican military spokesman said drug traffickers still were managing to get substances, most often from shipments from China. U.S. and Mexican law-enforcement officials also say that drug traffickers have returned to some old techniques for making meth, used before pseudoephedrine production was popular. One way to make the drug now is the so-called "P2P" method, which mainly uses a chemical called phenylacetic acid. The resulting drug isn't normally as powerful, but can be made with drugs found legally in Mexico. Recent reports suggest that Mexicans are improving the technique. In the past, the method produced a mixture of two drugs in a 50-50 ratio, a potent one called d-meth and another called l-meth, about the strength of codeine. But experts say nowadays Mexican traffickers are producing the mixture at a 70-30 ratio, favoring the more powerful drug.