By William Booth and Anne-Marie O'Connor
The Washington Post
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."
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.
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."