Central America Unprepared for Wave of Synthetic Drugs

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Evidence suggests that Mexican cartels are not only deepening their drug trafficking activities in Central America but may be diversifying into synthetic drugs like ecstasy, methamphetamine and LSD, for consumption both in the region and abroad.

On January 4, while on patrol near the Usumacinta river in the remote province of Peten, a Guatemalan military patrol came under fire from a group of smugglers. After a brief firefight the gunmen fled by boat, leaving their goods behind.

This incident is far from unusual in Peten, a region which has become a haven for Mexican drug traffickers in recent years. What stands out, however, is their merchandise: 65 tons of dimethyl formaldehyde, otherwise known as acetone. Because of its properties as a solvent, the chemical is used by drug producers to make methamphetamine.

The find is part of a growing trend in Central America, where the production of synthetic drugs like methamphetamine, ecstasy (MDMA), and LSD is becoming more and more common.

Guatemala appears to be at the center of this shift. Just one day before the Peten incident, Guatemalan officials announced that they had seized 160 tons of precursor chemicals used to make synthetic drugs in a shipping container along the Caribbean port of Santo Tomas de Castilla.

Both incidents came days after the Associated Press published a report on methamphetamine precursor chemicals in the country. In 2011, Guatemalan authorities seized about 1,600 tons of these chemicals, four times the amount confiscated in 2010. Much of the trade is thought to be controlled by the Sinaloa Cartel. According to the AP, the group could be producing as much as or more of the drug in Guatemala as in Mexico, which analysts usually consider the top source of US-bound meth.

Meth production is a concern in other Central American countries as well. In 2008, Honduran officials uncovered a large-scale drug lab used to make methamphetamine and ecstasy, disguised as a luxury funeral parlor. If production takes off in Honduras, it could be hard to control. Law enforcement officials are already concerned that Honduras is becoming the largest transit nation for cocaine in the region.

Meanwhile, domestic use of stimulants like meth is on the rise in Central America, with 1.3 percent of the adult population having used some form of amphetamine, according to the 2011 UNODC World Drug Report. The three countries where amphetamine was most common were El Salvador (3.3 percent), Belize (1.4 percent) and Panama (1.2 percent). By comparison, the prevalence of amphetamine use among individuals 12 and older in the United States (known for its large meth market) in 2009 was 1.2 percent.

The main concern about this trend is the region’s weak state institutions and notoriously porous legal systems. While the U.S. has attempted to strengthen state power in the region through the multi-million dollar Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), governments in the region claim that the money is not enough to increase intelligence, professionalize their security forces and strengthen their justice systems. The wave of synthetic drugs brings with it an entirely new set of problems as well. As InSight Crime has reported, the wide variety of legitimate uses for precursor chemicals make it hard for states to effectively crack down on their illicit use. What’s more, their volatility can make them difficult to dispose of safely, presenting an incentive for corrupt elements of security forces to sell them on the black market.

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