Mexican Drug Gangs Attracted by Lucrative Meth Trade

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A massive surge in the number of synthetic drug labs discovered in Mexico indicates a nationwide shift of traffickers away from traditional drugs like cocaine and towards the more profitable methamphetamine.

As Excelsior reported, some 645 of these labs have been discovered by Mexican authorities during the five years of the Felipe Calderon administration, compared to just 60 during Vicente Fox’s six years as president. Mexico’s Defense Department (Sedena), said that the rapid growth of narco-labs had been fueled by the decline in the number of fields used for the cultivation of marijuana or heroin-producing poppy, which they attributed to the government’s eradication efforts.

However, given the variable success of past eradication efforts, it is likely that a more important factor was the greater revenue to be made from producing synthetic drugs: a Sedena spokesman said that profit margins of synthetic drug manufacturers can be up to 20 times those of marijuana producers. Authorities said that the appeal of synthetic drugs is also due to the fact that setting up a lab is far quicker and easier than planting a field of coca or marijuana, and easier to conceal, because the production takes place beneath a roof and behind closed doors.

Another factor in the decline of marijuana cultivation in Mexico is the increasing number of big-time US growers, from the Pacific Northwest to the less monitored corners of Appalachia. US marijuana is widely perceived to be better than its Mexican competition, and US growers don’t have to slip past an increasingly fortified border. These factors mean that the Mexican marijuana industry, which has prevailed in the Sierra Madre region for more than a century, faces stiff competition.

The laboratories have been discovered primarily in four Pacific states: Sinaloa, Nayarit, Jalisco, and Michoacan. The geography dovetails with the striking rise in massive seizures of precursor chemicals in Pacific port cities like Lazaro Cardenas, Michoacan, and Manzanillo, Colima, a small state wedged between Michoacan and Jalisco. In May 2010 alone, the Mexican Navy seized more than 160 tons in just two Manzanillo busts; a year later, they confiscated almost 115 tons in two more seizures.

The location of the clandestine laboratories suggests that the Mexican production of synthetic drugs is dominated by the same group that has long towered over the industry as a whole: the Sinaloa Cartel. The organization led by Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, has long been the strongest criminal group along the Pacific coast region, as well as one of the most innovative in producing and smuggling drugs. It’s also noteworthy that the regions under the control of their biggest enemies, the Zetas, have comparatively little synthetic drug production.

This state of affairs seems unlikely to last. The Sinaloa Cartel has more experience at the production levels of the supply chain than many rival organizations, but the relative simplicity of synthetic drug production suggests that other gangs will inevitably eat into their market share. Furthermore, because there is no inherent geographic benefit to one region or another for producing synthetic drugs — unlike marijuana and poppy, which are ideally suited to the remote mountain ranges of western Mexico — a long-term shift toward synthetic drugs could eat into the natural advantages that the Sinaloa-based traffickers enjoy.

While there are a great deal of factors driving the violence in Mexico, it also seems logical that the greater amount of money at stake with synthetic production could encourage more bloodshed. Indeed, it is unlikely to be a coincidence that the rise in synthetic production has occurred alongside the notorious spike in Mexican violence. Insofar as the shift toward synthetic drugs is permanent, it will likely make the recent wave of violence more difficult to rein in.

The relatively rapid shift toward a new sector of the industry demonstrates the adaptability of drug traffickers, which has enabled them to flourish despite untold billions of dollars being spent to eliminate the trade over the last few decades.

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