Tracknum: 11872.201108171232.p7hcw6jy011823
Pubdate: Fri, 5 Aug 2011
Source: Wall Street Journal (US)
Copyright: 2011 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
Author: Nicholas Casey


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

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.