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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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Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 28, 2010; 12:37 AM

IN VERACRUZ, MEXICO 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.

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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, the 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."

Legal ingredients

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.


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