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Mexican cartels emerge as top source for U.S meth

Mexico's ongoing drug war continues to claim lives and disrupt order in the country.

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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.

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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, military busted 33 clandestine laboratories and 51 in 2008, compared with the 215 they 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.

Local victims

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."

Researcher Gabriela Martinez contributed to this report.

boothb@washpost.com oconnoram@washpost.com


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