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Mexican Meth: Crossing the Border

Mexican Meth: Crossing the Border

Law enforcement has been waging war on methamphetamine, also known as “meth,” cookers for decades. But as lab seizures and restrictions on pseudoephedrine dry up homegrown production, there is increasing concern that Mexican drug cartels are filling the void. 


Although meth can be made in small, illegal laboratories, most of the meth abused in the United States comes from domestic or foreign super labs (NIDA, 2012). Mexican meth now accounts for as much as 80 percent of the meth sold here, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration, and it is as much as 90 percent pure, a level that offers users a faster, more intense, and longer-lasting high (Stevenson & Sherman, 2012). 


The scope of the problem is staggering. While meth production is dramatically upended by heroin and cocaine, it is still cause for concern. 


Cooking meth is a dangerous proposition. It endangers laboratory chemists, neighbors, and the environment. Nonetheless, this is a marketable product that can ring up billions of dollars in sales. Mexican cartels are professional and savvy—they use the same business model proven to be successful with heroin and cocaine. Additionally, they use the same pipelines: sophisticated distribution networks that have funneled marijuana and cocaine into the US for years. 


The Mexican meth problem has been with us for a long time. Documentation from earlier DEA reports indicates its progressive intrusion into the states. According to a 2006 report, 65 percent of all meth consumed in the US came from Mexican drug cartels—53 percent from super labs in Mexico itself, and 12 percent from Mexican-run super labs within the US. The cartels that so efficiently established super labs in the west coast in the mid-1990s have moved operations to Mexico, where restrictions on the precursor chemical, pseudoephedrine, have until very recently been nonexistent. In 2004, Mexico imported 224 tons of pseudoephedrine, a figure estimated to be double the national demand for cold medicine, and quadruple the sixty-six tons imported in 2000. To supply their super labs, the cartels are obtaining the chemical in mass quantities, either in bulk directly from overseas suppliers, from local pharmaceutical companies making legitimate cold pills or via bogus pharmacy fronts (“Mexican meth,” 2006). 


The Impending Drug Epidemic 


Like the US, Mexico has tightened laws and regulations on pseudoephedrine. Nevertheless, some labs circumvent the restrictions obtaining large amounts of these chemicals from China and India. Furthermore, cartel chemists have turned to an old recipe that first appeared in the 1960s and 1970s in some parts of the western US.


Known as P2P, that older recipe uses the organic compound phenyl acetone. Because of its use in meth production, the US government made it a controlled substance in 1980, essentially stopping that form of meth in the US. But in Mexico, the cartels can get phenyl acetone from other countries. According to the DEA, in the third quarter of 2011, 85 percent of lab samples taken from US meth seizures came from the P2P process—up from 50 percent a little more than a year earlier (Salter, 2012). 


DEA reports are alarming and may be a portent of an impending drug epidemic. Records show that seizures of Mexican meth along the Southwest border have jumped substantially over a four-year span. During that period, officials confiscated over four thousand pounds in 2007 to more than sixteen thousand pounds in 2011, a dramatic increase of 400 percent.  


Seizures of Mexican meth coming across the southwest border have increased nearly fivefold between 2008 and 2012, from 2,282.6 kilograms in 2008 to 10,636.5 kilograms in 2012 (DEA, 2013). US Customs and Border Protection officers have confiscated more meth at Arizona ports of entry in fiscal year 2015 than they did the entire previous year, continuing an upward trend. Officers seized more than 3,240 pounds of meth between October and May 2015, compared with 3,200 pounds for the entire last fiscal year. 


“We started noticing the increase with meth in fiscal year 2014, so we noticed an increment on crystal meth and obviously it all starts from the demand, you know. They’re demanding this drug,” agency spokeswoman Marcia Armendariz said (Associated Press, 2015). 


Characteristics of New Meth 


The new Mexican meth is chemically stronger. The stimulant drug is more potent and, unsurprisingly, highly addictive. Purity increased from 39 percent in 2007 to 88 percent in 2011. 


Cost-wise, it is much cheaper than previous batches. The street price of meth has dropped 69 percent, from $290 per pure gram to less than $90. That makes the production even more competitive. American drug traffickers often receive free samples of meth as part of their shipment, which is an effective marketing strategy to entice new consumers. The disturbing numbers indicate that meth prices have decreased more than 70 percent between the third quarter of 2007 and the second quarter of 2012. During that time meth purity increased almost 130 percent. 


Officials say that the drug is easier and cheaper to manufacture in Mexico, where meth is produced on an industrial scale using formulas developed by professional chemists. Mexican drug cartels continue to ramp up production and global distribution of their product. A recent New York Times article reported that the problem may be more serious than previously estimated: 


Mexican authorities have busted a meth super lab and seized a staggering amount of pure methamphetamine—fifteen tons, more than double the amount of all meth seizures made at the border last year, and more than one hundred times the biggest-ever meth bust in the USA. The drugs have an estimated street value of $4 billion—experts believe Mexico’s cartels have moved beyond the US to supply users around the entire world (Cave, 2012).       


Consistent with the DEA, availability indicators reflect that the supply of Mexican meth is increasing in the US. Price, purity data, and increased meth flow across the southwest border indicate rising domestic availability, most of which is the result of high levels of meth production in Mexico.


Liquid Meth


Yet another concern surrounds the latest version of the stimulant drug. A sixteen-year-old Mexican high school student, Cruz Marcelino Velazquez, died after drinking highly concentrated liquid meth at a San Diego border crossing (“Teen died,” 2014). He had attempted to persuade inspectors that it was only apple juice. Velazquez died hours later at a hospital from acute meth intoxication.


San Ysidro, the nation’s busiest border crossing, has emerged as a major corridor for smuggling meth in the past five years, as Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel has increased its presence in the area. To avoid detection, crystal meth is dissolved in water and disguised in juice bottles, windshield wiper fluid containers, and gas tanks. It is later converted back to crystals.


Children are caught with meth several times a week at San Diego crossings, an “alarming increase,” an assistant special agent in charge of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement investigations in San Diego, said. These mules are typically paid $50 to $200 a trip (“Teen died,” 2014). 


Harsh Realities


The DEA’s relationship with Mexico embraces a number of harsh realities.


One such reality can be measured in miles. There is a two-thousand-mile border that separates both countries. It is vulnerable and porous. The border town of Nuevo Laredo, ten minutes from Laredo, Texas, is a classic example. It is a lucrative drug corridor because of the large volume of trucks that pass through the area, and the multiple, exploitable ports of entry. Every year, more than 5 million cars, 1.5 million commercial trucks, and 3.8 million pedestrians cross northbound from Mexico into the US here, bringing with them a ton of hidden narcotics (Fantz, 2012). 


Another reality is about the money. The estimated amount that Mexican and Colombian drug trafficking organizations make in wholesale profits annually comes to $39 billion, according to a 2009 Justice Department report (Fantz, 2012). 


Things are getting worse. A 2011 Justice Department study revealed that Mexican traffickers control the flow of most of the cocaine, heroin, foreign-produced marijuana, and methamphetamine in the US (Fantz, 2012). A lot of drugs are heading north and a lot of pesos are heading south. Something needs to be done. Someone needs to develop a plan. Our “Drug Czar” appears to be missing in action.







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