News Around the Republic of Mexico | April 2007
|Meth Production Flourishes in Mexico|
Laurence Iliff - The Dallas Morning News
Mexico City – The anti-drug operation was in the works for months. And the news would be big, officials said. But when Mexican police burst into a plush home in the capital's exclusive Lomas de Chapultepec neighborhood last month, guided in part by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, they were taken aback.
|Authorities seized weapons and $205 million last month – the biggest drug seizure ever – from a home in Mexico City. Agents believe the fortune was amassed by importing drugs that are used to make methamphetamine. (Belo Corp)|
They found stacks and stacks of crisp, green U.S. $100 bills. In closets, in drawers, and suitcases. The attorney general's office arranged the bills into a huge, bed-shaped platform, with Ben Franklin beaming from a thousand eyes. The first estimate by authorities put the take at $100 million. Then the bill-counting machines came in and the figure topped $200 million. It was the biggest drug cash seizure ever.
There was another surprise. The money did not belong to one of Mexico's powerful drug cartels, nor did it represent profits from the sale of traditional drugs such as Colombian cocaine, Mexican marijuana and black-tar heroin.
Rather, authorities said, it was amassed by a naturalized Mexican from China, Zhenli Ye Gon, who is accused of using his Asian contacts to illegally import the precursor drugs to make the new star of the U.S. and Mexican drug markets: methamphetamine.
As a U.S. crackdown against meth labs and precursor chemicals has been drying up domestic production in recent years, the Mexican cartels are enthusiastically filling the void, U.S. and Mexican officials say. Moreover, officials say, meth has advantages for the cartels over even highly profitable cocaine. It is a highly addictive drug that can be made at home, smuggled easily and reap huge profit margins.
Like the nonamphetamine designer drug "cheese" that is causing deaths in the Dallas area, cheap meth distributed through existing drug channels may be the coming nightmare on both sides of the border.
In September, police in Fort Worth reported a record seizure of methamphetamine: more than 48 pounds, with a street value of $3 million. In March, a convicted methamphetamine dealer was charged with the fatal shooting of a Dallas police officer, Senior Cpl. Mark Nix.
Mexican cartels are not just supplying demand for meth, a Mexican official said, but creating it as well.
"What we are seeing is a manipulation of the drug markets," said Santiago Vasconcelos, deputy director of international and legal matters for Mexico's attorney general's office.
"It is a diabolical plan by these criminal organizations" to increase sales of homemade amphetamines as an alternative to South American cocaine, which must be grown, processed, and transported thousands of miles.
"The lesson we get from this is very painful," said Mr. Vasconcelos. "The American people have yet to wake up from the nightmare of synthetic drugs, especially the nightmare that has brought them to methamphetamines."
It costs 20 cents to make a dose of meth that garners $20, he said in an interview.
Amphetamines can be taken as a pill, smoked as "ice," snorted as "crystal," or dissolved in water like the club drug "ecstasy," or MDMA. Some of the varied forms are old, some are new, but together they threaten to create new U.S. addictions and financially strengthen the Mexican cartels and their war against each other and the government.
"Methamphetamine is something we're very concerned about, because we go back to our history in the early '80s when cocaine was not a big deal here," said Steven M. Robertson, DEA special agent for congressional and public affairs.
"Then, all of a sudden, it took off, and we were playing catch-up. DEA has learned from the cocaine flood in the '80s and we're saying, OK, [with] methamphetamine, we don't want to get to the point where they're bringing in thousand-kilo amounts," he said in an interview.
The effects in Dallas, and across the U.S., could be devastating over time. Meth addicts are infamous for their obsessive addictions and failure to care for themselves, which causes their teeth to fall out and leaves their emaciated bodies susceptible to illness. This is especially true among those who inject or smoke the drug.
In contrast, ecstasy, an amphetamine derivative taken as a pill, is best known as a "club drug" that causes hours of energy followed by lethargy.
Use of amphetamines has not exploded in the U.S., but the promise of a drop-off due to the U.S. crackdown on precursor chemicals and drug labs has not materialized – because of increased Mexican supply.
And hard-core addiction seems to be rising quickly.
The U.S. Justice Department's "National Methamphetamine Threat Assessment" found that while the total number of meth users had stayed steady from 2002 to 2004 at about 600,000, the percentage of addicts within that group had increased significantly.
The number of people admitted to programs for treatment of methamphetamine-related drug use rose from about 68,000 in 2000 to nearly 130,000 in 2004, the report said.
One reason, it suggests, is the influx of Mexican ice methamphetamine, similar in its addictive qualities to crack cocaine.
"Smoking methamphetamine may result in more rapid addiction to the drug than snorting or injection, because smoking causes a nearly instantaneous, intense, and longer-lasting high," the report said. Seizures of ice along the Southwest border rose from 260 pounds in fiscal 2003 to nearly 1,500 pounds in 2005.
U.S. and Mexican officials do not agree on Mexico's role in meth production.
A.J. Turner, section chief for the FBI's criminal investigative division, said in an interview that Mexican cartels are the source of 85 percent to 90 percent of the methamphetamine in the U.S., according to the agency's intelligence. "The supply is on the Mexican side; the demand is on the United States side," he said.
Mr. Vasconcelos said suggestions that Mexico had become the dominant supplier to the U.S. were false. While U.S. meth lab seizures number in the thousands each year, Mexico raids about 100 labs annually, he said.
He described Mexico as an "incipient" producer that is now cracking down on the illegal import of precursor chemicals, such as ephedrine and pseudoephedrine. Mexico needs about 70 tons a year of pseudoephedrine for legal drugs but has imported as much as 240 tons year. It is now getting a handle on imports, although China remains a problem, he said.
Likewise, all ephedrine and pseudoephedrine coming into Mexico – 100 percent – passes through U.S. ports such as Long Beach before arriving in Mexico. Finger-pointing by U.S. officials, Mr. Vasconcelos said, only plays into the cartels' hands.
"The challenge here is to see ourselves as the community that we are; to see ourselves as neighbors," he said.
More labs in Mexico
According to the U.S. government's 2007 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, more methamphetamine labs are turning up on Mexican soil, and increasing amounts of the drug are being seized.
"Seizure statistics for cocaine and methamphetamine during 2006 demonstrate Mexico's significance as a production and transit country," the report says.
The suspect in the huge cash seizure in mid-March, Zhenli Ye Gon, was an important middleman for Mexican cartels because he was importing massive quantities of pseudoephedrine, a common cold medicine that can be easily transformed into amphetamine, Mexican authorities said.
Mr. Vasconcelos said the suspect appeared to be a legitimate businessman who found a profitable side business diverting pseudoephedrine to Mexican and U.S. meth producers. The fact that he was unable to launder the $205 million found in his home shows that Mexican bank controls are working.
Zhenli Ye Gon, the attorney general's office said, ran a pharmaceutical company, Unimed Pharm Chem de México, that illegally imported more than 60 tons of pseudoephedrine, which he processed into its purest form. Authorities say he was building a 45,000-square-foot laboratory near Mexico City, which officials have now dismantled.
The suspect got the attention of U.S. and Mexican officials in a big way in December when they seized 19 tons of pseudoephedrine in the port of Lázaro Cárdenas, the biggest Mexican seizure ever. The ship carrying it came from China and had passed through the port of Long Beach on its way to Mexico.
The ensuing investigation, "Operation Dragon," led officials not only to the $205 million and the laboratory under construction, but also to seven suspects and additional residences.
Zhenli Ye Gon remains a fugitive while Mexican authorities divide up the confiscated cash, one-third of which is to go toward drug treatment.
DRUG USE: A SNAPSHOT
According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, methamphetamine is second only to marijuana of illegal drugs used most frequently in many Western and Midwestern states. Nationwide, it still trails cocaine among regular users.
Number of regular drug users: 19.7 million
Marijuana users: 14.6 million
Cocaine users: 2.4 million
Methamphetamine users: 600,000
"Ecstasy" (MDMA) users: 500,000
SOURCE: 2005 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
Amphetamines: A general term used to describe a family of synthetic drugs that boost energy and stimulate brain activity, enhancing mood and alertness. They have been used legally as mental stimulants and as diet pills. Currently, their legal uses in the U.S. include treatment of attention deficit disorder and narcolepsy.
Methamphetamine: A highly potent stimulant with long-lasting effects that make it very addictive, like cocaine. It is the most popular illegal amphetamine and takes several forms, such as pills, a white powder, or clear chunky crystals that can be snorted or smoked (known as "crystal" or "ice").
• According to the 2005 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 10.4 million Americans 12 and older had tried methamphetamine at least once.
"Ecstasy": Also called MDMA for its chemical name (the "a" stands for amphetamine), ecstasy is a stimulant that also has some of the hallucinatory effects of mescaline, the active ingredient in peyote. It is often called a "club drug" or a "love drug" for the energy and positive mood it creates.
• More than 11 million people have tried MDMA at least once, according to the 2004 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
SOURCES: National Institute on Drug Abuse; U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration