MEXICO CITY — A U.S. crackdown on domestic methamphetamine labs has created opportunities for Mexican drug cartels and their "superlabs" to fill the void.
Law enforcement agencies now consider "meth" produced in Mexico to be the greatest drug menace in the Western United States and a growing concern across the southeast and mid-Atlantic states, according to a Department of Justice report released this year.
Mexican drug gangs now produce 80 percent of the methamphetamine consumed in the United States, and Mexican officials say the Mexican manufacturers have become adept at meeting the shifting demands of U.S. addicts.
"U.S. consumption patterns are changing," Mexican Attorney General Eduardo Medina Mora recently told reporters. "You are getting new entrants into the market that are essentially not choosing cocaine any more, but meth."
In the first three weeks of April, U.S. officials confiscated more than $30 million worth of methamphetamine destined for distribution points in California, Washington, Dallas, Kansas City, and Atlanta, Ga.
"These seizures are just a reminder that this stuff is coming to your neighborhood," said Steve Robertson, a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration special agent.
Last year, at the six border crossings from Mexico into California, Customs and Border Protection agents stopped more than 2,000 lbs of methamphetamine, worth approximately $220 million on the street.
Authorities say the ease with which meth can be manufactured in clandestine labs from readily available materials has allowed established gangs to take advantage of the growing demand for the drug.
In fact, the chemicals used to make methamphetamine are so common that the biggest bust linked to meth manufacturing in the Western Hemisphere last year wasn't of one of Mexico's powerful drug cartels, but of a relatively unknown Chinese businessman, Zhenli Ye Gon, who had $207 million in cash stashed in his Mexico City home.
On April 17, federal agents in Arkansas announced the arrests of 65 people and seizure of more than 100 lbs of Mexican "ice," as a more concentrated form of methamphetamine is known, destined for Dallas, Memphis, Kansas City, and Des Moines.
On April 2, officials arrested 22 members of the Barragan family drug organization and seized nearly 90 pounds of methamphetamine, 50 firearms and more than a quarter million dollars in an operation that required 300 federal, state and local law enforcement agents and 14 months of planning.
Authorities said the Barragans — led by brothers Adiodato, Ulises and Herminio — had been smuggling hundreds of pounds of meth a month from their hometown of Arteaga in central Mexico to distribution points in California, Washington state, Wisconsin, and Georgia.
"Drug trafficking organizations based in Mexico do not confine themselves by our boundaries, borders or laws," Arnold Moorin, the DEA Special Agent in Charge in Seattle, said following the arrests.
The Barragan family worked hard to not get caught. They used multiple cell phones, arranged their drug exchanges in populated places such as supermarkets and hotels, and always rode in non-descript cars. They spoke in code, with "stamps" meaning money and "fish" or "pure cream" meaning methamphetamine. They stuck to family for the most important business matters. They used their own children for cover.
"Herminio expressed it's always safer to travel with family," DEA Special Agent Jeff Hayes wrote in an affidavit filed with the indictment.
But the smuggling operations are also low tech. One 24-year-old Tijuana man was caught with 45 lbs of methamphetamine, worth almost $900,000, when customs agents at San Ysidro, Calif., noticed his face was "flushed and his hands were shaking."
Another man, Ramon Lopez, 41, was arrested on April 8 trying to smuggle 53 lbs of meth through a crossing point at Calexico, Calif. He told federal officers he was to be paid $1,500 to deliver the drugs to a drop off point at the local Wal-Mart.
In a recent report, the National Drug Intelligence Center said that Mexican gangs have opened distribution points in North Carolina and Georgia to reach new markets along the East Coast.
Nashville, Dallas, and Fort Worth law enforcement agents also report that traffickers distribute meth locally through connections with Hispanic and African American gangs.
Meth "superlabs" have been opened throughout Mexico, but particularly in the states of Michoacan, Baja California, Colima, and Jalisco, officials said. There, "cooks" combine the volatile mixture of pseudoephedrine, taken from common cold medications, with ammonia and other toxic chemicals to make the crystalized white powder.
The drug can be swallowed, smoked, snorted, or injected. Sometimes called the "poor man's cocaine," methamphetamine is a powerful stimulant like cocaine that produces a "rush" and euphoria. The effects of methamphetamine last much longer than those from cocaine, yet it generally costs less.
It cost only 20 cents to produce a $20 worth of methamphetamine, officials said.
"The profits involved are immense" Special Agent Robertson said.
Methamphetamine-related admissions to publicly funded drug treatment facilities have surged to 149,415 in 2006 from 64,481 in 2000, according to the latest data available from Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
The National Drug Intelligence Center attributes the rise in addiction to the increasing prevalence of Mexican "ice," a more concentrated form of the drug that like crack cocaine is usually smoked.
(Ordonez reports for The Charlotte Observer.)