Police in El Salvador and Guatemala are investigating more than a dozen front companies that smuggled tons of precursor chemicals used in methamphetamine production from Asia, highlighting a thriving, yet rarely visible trade.

According to an investigation by Guatemalan newspaper ElPeriodico, about a quarter of the precursor chemicals imported into the country last year, some 2,765 barrels, was handled by just 14 companies. And 10 of those companies exist only on paper.

One company, Importadora El Porvenir, is supposedly an importer of furniture, vehicles, and new and used tires. But in July 2011, the company imported 14 containers of polyether polyol, used as a precursor for synthetic drugs, from China. And according to company papers, the owner is an illiterate 19-year-old, ElPeriodico reports.

Another company, Quilimaco Importers, is a supposed pesticide importer. But the company brought in 80 barrels of voranol last year, a precursor chemical for amphetamines and meth. Quilimaco falsified its business license, as did Barnices Españoles, S. A., which also imported 80 barrels of precursor chemicals from Shanghai last year.

Authorities found links between all three front companies, which collaborated in making purchases together. Together, the three were responsible for bringing in 1,280 barrels of precursor chemicals into Guatemala last year. But as ElPeriodico’s investigation found, none of these companies even have offices, and the company address listed in their official documentation leads to empty warehouses.

Another two Guatemala-based companies, Discovery Distributors and Consolidated Royal, clearly show another pattern in the precursor smuggling trade. Both have links to front companies that appear to have been established in El Salvador solely for the purpose of illicitly smuggling precursor chemicals.

Discovery Distributors’ official address is in a low-income neighborhood in Guatemala City, in a house where an evangelical pastor lives with his family. The company is officially involved in importing clothes.

According to ElPeriodico, Discovery’s actual business involved using a front company based in El Salvador, Santa Ana Exporters and Importers, to smuggle precursor chemicals through the Acajutla sea port. When port authorities conducted an inspection in May 2011, they found that even though Santa Ana Exporters declared that it was importing benzyl salicylate, a legal chemical, it was actually importing ethyl phenylacetate, a chemical that requires special inspection when entering the country, as it is used for methamphetamine production.

In March 2011, El Salvadoran authorities received a tip-off that another local import company, Bodeguitas, was soon set to receive an importation of precursor chemicals that would end up in methamphetamine labs in Guatemala. A subsequent investigation found that three El Salvadoran companies, Santa Ana Exporters and Importers, Bodeguitas, and another company, Galaxias, were all in involved in the precursor trade and acted as intermediaries for companies based in Guatemala. Santa Ana Exporters was an intermediary for Guatemalan company Discovery Distributors, while Bodeguitas was an intermediary for Guatemalan company Consolidated Royal.

ElPeriodico’s investigation illustrates just how difficult it is to control the precursor chemical trade. With the right paperwork, smugglers can gain business licenses needed to set up front companies, which can import hundreds of barrels of chemicals without triggering off the authorities. The three El Salvadoran companies, Santa Ana, Bodeguitas, and Galaxias, at the very minimum were able to collectively import 190 tons, or 720 barrels, of ethyl phenylacetate, which authorities seized in the Acajutla sea port during April and June 2011, reports La Prensa Grafica.

Guatemala's precursor chemical trade is growing as methamphetamine production rises inside the country. Guatemala seized four times as many precursor chemicals in 2011 than in 2010. Many of the methamphetamine laboratories inside the country are thought to be controlled by the Sinaloa Cartel.

The meth production and precursor chemical import trade appears to have shifted, in part, to Guatemala, thanks to greater controls over precursor chemicals enforced in Mexico. But as ElPeriodico's investigation highlights, with just a couple of fake addresses and approved business licenses, it is all too easy for smugglers to set up a precursor smuggling ring that stretches from Guatemala to El Salvador. No matter if greater controls over precursor chemicals are enforced in one country, the trade will easily "balloon" over into the neighboring one, so long as the business maintains a facade of legitimacy.