HTTP/1.0 200 OK Content-Type: text/html Argentina a New Hub for Meth Traffickers
Pubdate: Mon, 13 Oct 2008
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Page: Front Page
Copyright: 2008 Los Angeles Times
Author: Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
Note: Andres D'Alessandro of The Times' Buenos Aires Bureau 
contributed to this report.
Bookmark: (Methamphetamine)


Crackdowns in Mexico Have Prompted Drug Gangs to Look South for 
Supplies of Ephedrine, a Key Ingredient.

BUENOS AIRES -- The three young entrepreneurs met their contacts 
outside a Wal-Mart here and drove off with them, apparently convinced 
that they would be celebrating a lucrative new deal.

But authorities believe it was a set-up, linked to Mexican mobsters 
bent on reshaping the global drug trafficking map.

The three men were handcuffed, forced to kneel in the mud and sprayed 
with bullets; their bodies were dumped in a ditch.

The execution-style slayings have sent shock waves across Argentina, 
which has largely been spared the drug violence seen in Colombia and 
Peru, the world's top cocaine producers. These killings, authorities 
say, were related to a more prosaic product: ephedrine, the synthetic 
stimulant found in cough and cold remedies. Ephedrine is also used in 
the manufacture of methamphetamine, the highly addictive drug long a 
scourge in the United States.

Officials suspect that the three men were involved with a relatively 
new smuggling route called the "ephedrine highway," the triangulated 
transport of ephedrine from Asia to Argentina to Mexico, ultimately 
destined for the booming U.S. meth market.

Mexican traffickers have become the main suppliers of methamphetamine 
to the United States. But a crackdown in Mexico has squeezed supplies 
of ephedrine from Asia, leading the gangs to seek their raw material 
in Argentina, a nation with a robust pharmaceutical industry, 
relatively few controls and a reputation for corrupt cops and customs 

The Mexican-Argentine relationship has proved an expedient marriage: 
abundant product, a compliant host nation and an efficient 
trafficking network. But the brutal killings have exposed the perils 
of courting Mexican drug rings.

"When Mexican traffickers arrive they bring in organized crime and 
violence," said Special Agent Michael Sanders, a spokesman in 
Washington for the Drug Enforcement Administration. "That has 
unfortunately proved to be the case in Argentina."

Expanding Networks

Once confined largely to their homeland and U.S. border states, 
Mexican criminal gangs have vaulted over international frontiers and 
formed far-flung alliances.

"The Mexican trafficking organizations already have smuggling routes 
set up throughout South America for moving cocaine," Sanders said. 
"So traffickers can use the same routes and techniques to move ephedrine."

Methamphetamine is a multibillion-dollar industry in the United 
States, though its use is believed to have leveled off since the 
1990s. Last year, federal authorities reported that a red, 
cherry-flavored methamphetamine, called go-fast, showed up in Central 
and Northern California, aimed at the youth market

U.S. authorities began to notice last year that street prices were 
soaring for methamphetamine, acting U.S. Drug Enforcement 
Administrator Michele Leonhart said at a conference in July in 
Istanbul, Turkey. Authorities attribute the price increase to 
heightened enforcement pressures south of the Rio Grande.

The lure of drug profits had for years spurred large-scale 
importation of ephedrine and related products to Mexico, mostly from 
Asia. At Washington's urging, Mexico last year moved to ban most 
ephedrine imports and moved aggressively against meth labs.

In one high-profile case, Mexican police busted a methamphetamine 
ring allegedly run by a Shanghai-born Mexican citizen, Zhenli Ye Gon. 
He is accused of bringing in vast quantities of an ephedrine 
derivative from China. Mexican police also seized more than $200 
million in cash from Ye Gon's lavish Mexico City residence. The 
record bust pinched the amphetamine pipeline, authorities said.

As a result, desperate Mexican traffickers turned to Argentina, 
according to the DEA.

Argentina, like Mexico, is not a manufacturer of ephedrine. But the 
country's pharmaceutical sector is a major importer, buying mostly 
from China and India.

Imports of ephedrine to Argentina recently began to soar -- from 2.9 
tons in 2004 to 19.1 tons in 2007, according to government figures.

Police suspect ephedrine, and possibly manufactured methamphetamine, 
was being smuggled from Argentina to Mexico via at least two methods 
- -- by "mules" on commercial flights, the diluted drugs sometimes 
placed in wine bottles carried on board; or disguised as sugar or 
other products in maritime shipping containers. Once converted to 
methamphetamine in Mexico, the drug is smuggled into the U.S. by 
individuals and in cars and trucks, just like other illegal substances.

Hiring Collaborators

But the Mexicans could not do it alone. They needed Argentine 
partners with links to legitimate pharmacies and drug laboratories, 
which could legally import ephedrine.

By all accounts, Sebastian Forza, 34, was an ambitious and dexterous 
deal-maker with ample contacts in the Argentine pharmaceutical world. 
He left law school to set up a medical supply firm, which appeared to 
be thriving. He owned no fewer than six cars and a pair of 
high-powered motorcycles. He lived with his wife and son in a gated 
community. He was tall, slim, broad-shouldered and an impeccable dresser.

"Baby-faced, with blond hair and blue eyes," is how his wife, Solange 
Bellone, described him to the Argentine daily Clarin. "He cared a lot 
about how he looked."

There was a dark side, however. Forza was deeply in debt. He was a 
serial check bouncer. At one point he was investigated for illegal 
trafficking in prescription drugs. He complained of threats from ex-associates.

And now he's dead, along with the two partners with whom he met at 
the Wal-Mart.

A phalanx of investigators is trying to untangle Forza's possible 
dealings with the ephedrine trade. One line of inquiry: Whether he 
was an intermediary in the purchase of failing Argentine drug 
concerns whose names and import licenses could then be used to order 
ephedrine from Asia.

Police are also focusing on Forza's relationship with another 
Argentine pharmaceutical entrepreneur, Luis Marcelo Tarzia, who is in 
custody here.

Tarzia, 61, was arrested July 18 along with nine Mexican suspects at 
a suburban estate that police say was a clandestine methamphetamine 
lab. The lab, officials say, was a wholly owned subsidiary of Mexican 
gangs. The Mexican suspects were all reportedly linked to the 
powerful Sinaloa cartel.

In statements to police, Tarzia has acknowledged knowing Forza but 
denied any links to the ephedrine commerce. He said he believed the 
Mexicans were in the leather-curing business.

On Aug. 7, Forza, along with partners Damian Ferron and Leopoldo 
Bina, met with two men and a woman, as yet unidentified, in a cafe 
outside the Wal-Mart, police say. The victims apparently believed 
that a new deal had been struck. They drove off to celebrate.

"They left with the illusion that something was promised to them," 
Forza's widow said on Argentine television. "They were with the wrong 
people at the wrong time."

Six days later, their bullet-riddled bodies were found in a ditch 
along a highway. Forza had been shot seven times. Anothervictim's ear 
had been cut off -- an apparent message, its exact meaning unclear.

Why the three were killed remains a mystery, though police suspect 
that the drug gang believed Forza had double-crossed them.

A former associate of Forza, Ariel Vilan, later committed suicide, 
leaping from the balcony of a ninth-floor apartment. A slew of 
threats had terrorized him, friends said.

Since the triple killings, Argentine investigators have been tracking 
the murky ephedrine paper trail and searching pharmacies, customs 
docks and warehouses for leads. Authorities also announced new 
controls on ephedrine imports.

"Our concern is to limit these chemical substances that can be used 
for the manufacture of methamphetamine," Justice Minister Anibal 
Fernandez said in a TV interview in Buenos Aires.

"If we get rid of this raw material," he added, "we not only avoid 
trafficking to Mexico and the United States, but we also avert the 
possibility that methamphetamine is produced here in the future."
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