Mexico Groups Well Placed for Global Meth Market

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The recent arrest of four Mexicans allegedly involved in a methamphetamine manufacturing operation in Nigeria points to the increased global popularity of the drug, which has created opportunities for Mexican gangs abroad.

In early March authorities in Nigeria arrested four Mexicans along with several Nigerians, after discovering a substantial methamphetamine laboratory in Asaba, capital of the state of Delta. Nigerian officials also seized 1.5 kilograms of meth in the operation. Terming it a “super lab,” Nigerian authorities said it was capable of producing up to 4,000 kilograms of the drug per cooking cycle.

A spokesman for the Nigerian anti-drug agency, known as the NDLEA, said that the Mexicans were technical experts hired to refine the production process at the facility. It is unclear if they are linked to any ongoing criminal enterprise in Mexico, though it would not be surprising if their presence was indicative of a large Mexican criminal group’s expansion into West Africa.

This is not the first time that Mexicans have been arrested in foreign operations targeting methamphetamine production. In the most famous case, three Mexican brothers from Sinaloa were arrested in Malaysia for allegedly operating a meth lab. The trio received death sentences despite arguments that they were merely in the wrong place at the wrong time, though the case remains open on appeal.

US officials have also targeted Mexican-run production networks in the northeastern part of the country. Local and federal law enforcement officials told Newsweek in 2015 that Mexican traffickers were working to foment a stronger market of meth addicts in the New York region. With labs located in remote areas of New York and New Jersey, the groups have reportedly partnered with mafia families whose roots in the region’s underworld date back more than a century.

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The stories from Nigeria, Malaysia, and New York indicate that Mexican groups are attempting to carve out a larger role for themselves in the global methamphetamine supply chain, feeding a market that has grown substantially in recent years. The UN reported in 2014 that the total number of global crystal meth seizures soared from roughly 25,000 kilograms in 2008 to more than 100,000 in 2012. Europe’s market, though smaller than that of the US, has long been substantial, with the Czech Republic often fingered as a key link in the chain. The UN has also reported that the drug’s consumption has recently soared in Oceania and East Asia.

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Not surprisingly, the Sinaloa Cartel appears to be at the forefront of Mexican participation in the global methamphetamine industry. Evidence of the organization’s preeminence in the meth trade feeding the US market dates back a decade. Zhenli Ye Gon, the Chinese national and naturalized Mexican whose Mexico City mansion was discovered with more than $200 million cash in 2007, allegedly made his mark turning ephedrine into methamphetamine. Ignacio Coronel, Joaquín Guzmán’s late lieutenant, made his mark manufacturing meth in the Jalisco region, earning the moniker the King of Ice before his death in a shootout with federal troops in 2010. Mexican authorities have regularly seized shipments of scores of tons of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine in Mexican ports controlled by the Sinaloa Cartel, especially Manzanillo.

Mexican influence in the cocaine trade predates their role in methamphetamine, and in effect, the Mexican groups appear to be seeking to apply their success in the former trade to the latter. In the case of cocaine, organizations like the Sinaloa Cartel, the Zetas, and the Gulf Cartel leveraged their essential role in slipping illicit merchandise past US border controls to become a key global player, working with foreign criminal groups in South America, Europe, and elsewhere around the globe.

The fact that Mexican gangs have managed to establish a toehold in the global cocaine trade, even in flows that don’t involve the United States, is in one sense remarkable. The Mexican gangs are not geographically close to production centers in South America, and while they are good at sneaking past US border controls, they have no obvious natural role in sneaking contraband into Europe. Yet Mexican gangs have used their centrality to the US cocaine market, which is the largest in the world, and all the skills they developed in the Western Hemisphere, to amplify their global stature.

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The Mexican groups are well positioned to do the same with methamphetamine, with one additional advantage compared to cocaine: they are world leaders in production, and have been for years. They have shown they can supply consumer demand by linking with local distributors or setting up their own networks, and have demonstrated adaptability in responding to changing regulatory conditions with regard to meth precursors. This experience likely will grant Mexican groups more staying power, should the global appetite for methamphetamine continue to expand.

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