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Cross-border methamphetamine trade booms amid Mexico's 'war on drugs'

Alejandro Acosta / Reuters, file

A soldier guards boilers at an outdoor clandestine methamphetamine laboratory discovered in Chiquilistlan, Mexico, on December 7.

The number of methamphetamine “super labs” seized by Mexican authorities has rocketed in the last five years but shipments of the drug across the border have also continued to grow, according to government statistics.

The increase highlights how Mexico’s cartels have diversified beyond their traditional focus of exporting cocaine, heroin and marijuana by transforming their operations to also make methamphetamines on an industrial scale.


The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has noted “a sustained upward trend in Mexican methamphetamine availability in U.S. markets.” Research by the U.S. government also shows that methamphetamine prices are falling and that the purity level of seizures is rising.

According to information from Mexico’s Secretariat of National Defense, 22 methamphetamine labs were seized in 2007. That number increased to 206 in 2011.

The vast majority of these were classed as super labs – in contrast to smaller operations that characterize much of the production in the United States, a secretariat official confirmed to msnbc.com.  The official asked for anonymity for security reasons.

"Methamphetamine seizure rates inside the United States and along the U.S.-Mexico border have increased markedly since 2007," according to a U.S. Department of Justice report.

'In the business of making money'
U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) officials said they could not comment specifically on statistics released by the Mexican government, but acknowledge that the cartels have adapted and changed since President Felipe Calderon declared his war on drugs in December 2006.

“There has been an evolution,” Special Agent Gary Boggs of the DEA’s Office of Diversion Control told msnbc.com. “All of these drug trafficking groups, they are not in the business of drugs, they are in the business of making money.  So regardless of what the drug is, if there is a market for it they are going to try ways of making money out of it.”

Methamphetamine, a white, odorless and bitter crystalline powder, dissolves in water or alcohol and can be taken orally, snorted, injected or smoked.  Known as meth, chalk, go-fast, zip, ice and crystal, among other names, it can be very addictive and lead to dramatic weight loss, dental problems, paranoia, hallucinations and extreme violence.

The methamphetamine trade is only part of the drug problem confronting Mexico – the country’s cartels also produce or traffic large amounts of cocaine, heroin and marijuana, among other narcotics.  Since Calderon's war on drugs began, more than 47,500 people have been killed, according to the country's attorney general's office.  The worsening violence and continued flow of drugs has caused many to question whether Mexico’s militarized approach is the right way to stamp out the cartels.

While most of the bloodshed in the war on drugs has been south of the border, the problem has had a direct impact on Americans.  Mexico is the primary source of methamphetamines consumed in the U.S., according to the Department of Justice’s National Drug Threat Assessment 2011

“Methamphetamine production in Mexico is robust and stable, as evidenced by recent law enforcement reporting, laboratory seizure data, an increasing flow from Mexico, and a sustained upward trend in Mexican methamphetamine availability in U.S. markets,” according to the study, which bases its conclusions on data running through September 2010.  “Law enforcement and intelligence reporting, as well as seizure, price, and purity data, indicate that the availability of methamphetamine in general is increasing in every region of the (United States).”

According to the Department of Justice report, from July 2007 through September 2010, the price per pure gram of methamphetamine decreased 60.9 percent, from $270.10 to $105.49. Purity increased 114.1 percent, from 39 percent to 83 percent.

Booming business
After declining sharply in 2007, methamphetamine seizures along the Mexico-U.S. border have increased every year. 

The dramatic growth in operations targeting Mexican methamphetamine super labs from 2007 and 2011 is likely the result of the huge increase in military involvement during Calderon’s war on drugs, said Octavio Rodriguez, coordinator of the Justice in Mexico Project at the University of San Diego’s Trans-Border Institute.

This jump in decommissions cannot be taken alone, however – falling prices also suggest that the trade in methamphetamines remains a booming business despite the enormous military deployment.

“My impression is that this data shows a much greater effectiveness on the part of the army,” Rodriguez told msnbc.com.  “But what these numbers imply to me is that if lab seizures are growing and the price is falling is that the production is so high that it is not causing a serious impact. In other words, if seizures are not having a real effect on prices and the price continues to fall it means that the seizures aren’t even affecting the level of production.”

Since 2007, Mexican spending on security, which includes the army, navy, federal police and attorney general's office, has almost doubled to reach more than $46 billion.

The United States, the world’s largest consumer of illegal drugs, had spent around $1.4 billion since 2008 on the struggle against the cartels in Mexico and Central America as part of the so-called Merida Initiative.  Meanwhile, U.S. border patrols costing the United States $3 billion per year have helped make the nearly 2,000-mile-long boundary as fortified as it has been in 160 years, according to a report by the Council of Foreign Relations.

But despite the billions spent and tens of thousands of lives lost, the organization thought to be controlling much of the methamphetamine trade as well as heroin and marijuana, the Sinaloa cartel, remains staggeringly powerful.  In January, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman,  at the helm of the group believed to control the methamphetamine trade and the drug’s key ingredients, earned the title of “world’s most powerful drug trafficker” from the U.S. Department of Treasury.

Fugitive drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman is believed to be a billionaire.

Guzman has also appeared on Forbes’ World’s Most Powerful People list since 2009, and is thought to be the world’s richest drug dealer, according to the magazine.

Key chemicals
Officials say key to stamping out the methamphetamine trade is interrupting the flow of chemicals needed to manufacture it, known as precursors.

China and India are the main countries involved in the trafficking of key precursor chemicals to Mexico, the DEA’s Boggs said

“We’ve … taken steps to work with our international partners to curb international chemical smuggling,” he added.

Despite efforts by officials on both sides of the border, the trade in methamphetamines and precursors is likely spreading south.  According to The Associated Press, 1,600 tons of precursors were seized in Guatemala in 2011, up from 400 seized there in 2010.

In December alone, 675 tons of precursors destined for Guatemala were seized in Mexico.  Most of it came from Shanghai, China, the AP reported.  At $100 per gram for the finished product, that would end up producing hundreds of billions of dollars-worth of drugs.

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