MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Mexican drug cartels are sidestepping laws that target the production of methamphetamines by importing new kinds of input chemicals, a blow to U.S. and Mexican efforts to halt the thriving trade.
Innovations in producing the highly addictive drug add new challenges to President Felipe Calderon’s campaign to stem the turf wars that have killed over 10,000 people this year.
It is also bad news for anti-drug efforts in the United States, where officials hailed a temporary decline in meth availability after Mexico outlawed pseudoephedrine, a chief input chemical used to make the drug, in 2007.
Meth flooded back onto U.S. streets in 2009, at even lower prices, U.S. officials say, as innovating Mexican cartels made their meth with harder-to-detect common chemicals like phenylacetic acid, used in food flavorings and perfumes.
“Pseudoephedrine labs have decreased ... but what’s been increasing is the volume of these precursor chemicals coming into the ports in total quantities as well as the types of labs that have been seen,” a U.S. official in Mexico told Reuters.
So far this fiscal year, Mexico has seized 818 tonnes of precursor chemicals that could be used to make meth, said the U.S. official, who requested anonymity.
The amount of those chemicals being used legitimately by manufacturers in products like beverages or bread products is minuscule compared with how much is being diverted to drug labs, the official said.
Mexican cartels, with the help of corrupt port officials or front companies, are receiving bulk shipments of the chemicals from China and transporting them to clandestine meth labs.
The new production process — known as phenyl-2-propanone, or P2P method, once popular with U.S. biker gangs in the 1970s — costs less than making meth with pseudoephedrine, although the resulting drug is usually less potent.
Mexican security forces discovered 215 meth labs last year, a more than four-fold increase from 2008, according to U.S. Justice Department statistics. Most of them were P2P labs, the U.S. official said.
“Once you seem to prevent the problem, then there is a loophole. And once that loophole is filled, another one opens up,” said James Cunningham, a meth expert at the University of Arizona.
Meth, which can cause brain damage, violent behavior and tooth loss, is a law enforcement priority in the United States, where the drug has ravaged many rural communities.
Addicts sometimes cook small, homemade batches of meth using recipes found on the Internet, but strict regulations have made it more difficult for U.S. producers to compete with bigger, more sophisticated operations in Mexico.
Mexico’s attorney general’s office and defense ministry declined to comment on the issue.
Calderon’s government has applied new regulations on some of the chemicals that can used to make meth, Cunningham said, and seizures of phenylacetic acid and its derivatives are on the rise.
One haul in April by Mexican federal police found more than 80 metric tonnes shipped from Shanghai, China.
Still, Mexico faces an uphill battle in making sure that chemicals needed for a variety of industrial uses do not end up in the wrong hands.
In addition, illegal cargoes of pseudoephedrine, also used in cold medicines, at times find their way into Mexico through Central America where regulations are looser.
“Someone in (a Central American) port can pull the containers, get them through customs and truck them up to Mexico,” another U.S. law enforcement official said.
“Most of the border agents don’t know what that stuff is. They’ll say: ‘It has a permit — let it roll.’”
Editing by Missy Ryan and Kieran Murray