Exclusive: Amid U.S. pressure on fentanyl, Mexico raises drug lab raids data
MEXICO CITY, March 17 (Reuters) - Mexico's army has dramatically revised upward the number of drug lab raids it says it conducted under President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, according to government data and leaked military documents reviewed by Reuters.
The documents, found among a trove of millions of emails leaked last year by the Guacamaya hacker group, show the upward revision being due to the army retroactively including hundreds of inactive labs on its seizures list under Lopez Obrador's presidency. Figures for the years of previous administrations were left unchanged.
Mexico's army, in a response to a freedom of information request in February, now says it seized 635 synthetic drug labs during 2019, 2020 and 2021 - the first three years of Lopez Obrador's administration - up from 104 busts it had previously reported for the same period.
The army also said it seized nearly 500 laboratories in 2022, according to a military response to a Reuters request in January, by far the highest annual figure this century.
The hiked up figures are not credible, say two former senior law enforcement figures in Mexico and the United States, as well as two serving Mexican security sources.
"These numbers are outrageous and not worth the paper they are written on," said Matthew Donahue, former U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Regional Director who was previously based in Mexico and retired from the agency last year, when presented with Reuters' analysis of the data.
In his view, the numbers were aimed at "placating the United States and to make it appear they are doing something, when clearly they are not."
Donahue said his allegations were based on past experience of working in Mexico, though Reuters could not independently verify his claims.
The description of the drugs the Mexicans say they seized in the labs also raises questions about the accuracy of the lab data, said two of the security sources. In the data sets reviewed by Reuters, almost all the labs raided are labeled as methamphetamine labs and none are labeled as producing fentanyl, a synthetic opioid driving record American overdose deaths.
The absence of fentanyl lab raids is highly improbable as Mexican crime syndicates had long ago pivoted to mass producing the drug on home soil, according to the two security sources, a trend that accelerated after China classified fentanyl as a controlled substance in 2019.
In response to detailed questions from Reuters about the revised lab counts, the Mexican Defense Ministry (SEDENA) said that it "has no information that answers the request". SEDENA, which oversees the army, also did not respond to additional questions about allegations that it included "inactive" labs on seizure lists and that the figures lacked credibility.
The presidency did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the changes to the data. On Thursday, President Lopez Obrador said in a regular morning press conference: "We are constantly destroying laboratories."
The White House and the DEA declined to comment on Reuters' findings. A State Department spokesperson said the U.S. supports Mexico's efforts to "effectively seize and investigate clandestine drug labs" and is working with Mexican counter-narcotics agencies to "establish protocols" for reporting such seizures.
U.S. Senator Tim Kaine, a Democrat from Virginia who sits on the Foreign Relations Committee, commented on Reuters' findings after the publication of the story by warning the epidemic of overdose deaths requires "close collaboration" with Mexico to address drug trafficking.
"If Mexican leaders are not doing their part, or trying to minimize the issue, that's deeply concerning and we should hold them accountable," Kaine told Reuters in a statement.
FENTANYL OR NOT?
Laboratory busts, often in hard-to-reach mountainous areas, have historically been a key metric for how active Mexican security forces have been in targeting drug trafficking groups.
According to the documents reviewed by Reuters, the revisions to the data occurred a few weeks prior to Lopez Obrador's July 2022 visit to the White House amid intensifying U.S. pressure for Mexico to do more to combat the production and trafficking of fentanyl. Mexico denies fentanyl is produced there.
On Wednesday, in the president's daily press conference, officials again fought back against U.S. claims that fentanyl is produced in Mexico and presented a video that said the current administration had raided 153% more drug labs than the previous one.
Mexico's foreign ministry said on March 13 that its security services had "no record" of fentanyl production in the country, contradicting DEA claims that Mexican cartels dominate the entire global fentanyl supply chain.
Recent fentanyl seizures by U.S. authorities at the southern border with Mexico have broken records year after year. U.S. officials intercepted 14,104 pounds (6,397 kg) of fentanyl in fiscal year 2022, a 33% increase on the previous year, according to the U.S. Customs And Border Protection agency.
Mexico's foreign ministry responded to Reuters questions about the lab raids data by forwarding Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard's Wednesday statements on fentanyl trafficking, in which he said that fentanyl was pressed into pills in Mexico, but the drug itself was not manufactured there.
Ebrard said the drug is imported to Mexico from the United States and unspecified "Asian countries".
Relations between the United States and Mexico have been strained under Lopez Obrador, who has curbed security cooperation and chastised the conduct of DEA agents in Mexico, accusing them of trampling on Mexico's sovereignty.
DEA head Anne Milgram last month told the U.S. Congress the agency was "very concerned about clandestine labs across Mexico", adding that "virtually all" the fentanyl seized in the United States is produced there.
While the army has publicized the higher lab raid figures in recent monthly security reports, it has offered no public explanation for the data changes, and the inclusion of inactive labs has not been previously reported.
In addition to Donahue, the former DEA regional director, three other Mexican and foreign security sources said they doubted the veracity of the lab seizure figures.
The changes to the data were a "mockery," said one of them, Guillermo Valdes, Mexico's civilian spy chief between 2007 and 2011, when Reuters showed him the data. "It is shameful that the army is willing to do that and gamble with its credibility."
Internal military documents found among the millions of leaked army emails released by the Guacamaya hacker group show that in June 2022 the army began including "inactive abandoned" labs in its tally of seizures.
In a draft report of crime-fighting statistics attached to an email dated May 30, the army said 232 labs were raided under Lopez Obrador (including 2019, 2020, 2021 and part of 2022). A week later, in a revised version of the same report sent on June 7, the army had increased that total to 873, explaining that 232 were active laboratories, while the rest were "inactive abandoned" labs.
The four former and serving security officials Reuters spoke to say there is no obvious reason to place inactive labs, which may have been abandoned for years, on its seizures list.
One army dataset, provided in response to a freedom of information request in August 2022, shows 14 lab raids conducted on one day in June 2022 and 12 lab busts two days later - more than the army had managed in the entire year in 2021 under the old counting method.
Mexico's Attorney General's Office (FGR) also tallies lab raids and its figures include seizures made by other security agencies. FGR data has historically been slightly higher than, though broadly in line with, figures provided by the army, which is responsible for the vast majority of raids.
For 2021, FGR recorded 23 lab seizures whereas the army now claims to have done 217 (raised from 21 in previous data).
In 2022, FGR reported 18 lab raids by all security agencies, compared to the army's count of 492 raids.
FGR did not respond to a request for comment.
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